LINCOLN — They aren’t wearing jerseys. They would probably blend in if they did.
Find the right vantage point inside Memorial Stadium during practice, and there are each of Nebraska’s five defensive coaches doing more showing than telling. New cornerbacks coach Donte Williams is along the sideline holding a blocking pad, smacking a rotating line of players as they simulate disengaging blocks and dropping into coverage. Scott Booker is throwing deep balls to his safeties and demonstrating footwork on how to run back interceptions.
Move closer to the south end zone, where Trent Bray is shuffling laterally to multiple linebackers and raising his arms to indicate their zone responsibilities. Not far away is defensive line coach John Parrella, who hits the same padded targets as his players.
Then there’s defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, a walking energy drink who doesn’t stop flitting about during the 90-minute workout. He bounces between different groups of linemen blocking each other, blowing his whistle and giving instruction each time. He taps Huskers who make plays in seven-on-seven drills. If the offense wins a snap, he congratulates those players in front of his unit.
Nebraska’s official Twitter feed posted a GIF last week of Diaco soaring to meet safety Joshua Kalu in the air to bump forearms. Even the coach’s vertical has extra pep.
“It is really fun to watch that defensive staff work,” coach Mike Riley said. “I think they have great leadership, they love football, they have high energy, they’re really proud of coaching. With the teaching that’s going on, the enthusiasm for the work, the galvanizing of the players, it’s all positive.”
Riley thinks a moment, then shakes his head. The 64-year-old head man has never worked with a group of defensive assistants this young. All played college football in the not-so-distant past. All are well-regarded recruiters eager to meet prospects. In the months that the staff has been together, team workouts haven’t been dull.
Junior linebacker Luke Gifford feels the practical difference every day. If Bray is matching his speed during runs, the Lincoln Southeast grad knows there’s a problem. As fall camp becomes a grind, an encounter with Diaco is always good for a shot of adrenaline.
“It definitely translates to the field,” Gifford said. “When we scrimmage and stuff, everybody’s running to the ball. If someone misses a tackle, there’s three or four dudes running to the ball — bang, bang, bang.
“I don’t know if we’ve necessarily had that the last couple years — in some games I’m sure we haven’t — but this year, it’s gang tackles, it’s people running to the ball. It’s an attitude.”
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Diaco bristles slightly at the question. Nebraska’s defensive staff isn’t that young.
“My hips and knees feel old,” Diaco said. “I think we’re energetic.”
The coordinator follows by reminding how much veteran savvy Nebraska’s quintet of coaches carries. Parrella (47 years old) played a dozen seasons in the NFL. Bray (34) is a coach’s son working at his third Power Five program. Booker (36) and Williams (34) — set to make their Husker debuts this season along with Diaco (44) — have made stops at the likes of Notre Dame and Arizona, respectively.
Diaco himself was a head coach for three years at Connecticut and coordinated the Fighting Irish defense in the 2013 national title game. So, no, these guys aren’t rookies.
“We have a lot of experience and we’re very energetic also,” Diaco said. “We’re enjoying the players, we love the players, we’re feeding off each other and that won’t stop.”
The vibe is different from Riley’s first year in Lincoln in 2015, when coordinator Mark Banker, line coach Hank Hughes and safeties assistant Brian Stewart were all 50-somethings and the average age of the four defensive leaders — including Bray — was 50.
The mean birthday tally on that side of the ball now? Thirty-nine.
Redshirt sophomore DaiShon Neal has been through the changes. It’s definitely new when his position coach is so in the moment that he breaks down huddles before Neal can. Sometimes, Neal said with a grin, he thinks Parrella believes he’s still practicing himself.
“That’s a fired-up man; he’s all gas, no brakes. Him and Coach Diaco are two of the only people I know that bring the same energy every day,” Neal said, dragging out the last two words. “So Coach Parrella is really good. When I’m feeling down, I look at him and it gets me fired up. He has a high standard for all of us and we try to push ourselves and reach that level of opportunity. We want to be better than him and take his mentality and go out there and fight every day.”
Junior Peyton Newell, a backup nose tackle, sees the same whirling dervish of a coach. But Parrella and the staff aren’t just motivational trainers. They know about the daily life of a student-athlete. They are well-versed in technique, and players recognize they will back them up like teammates.
“They know the days when we need a little bit more push to the days where they need to get us amped up,” Newell said. “It’s not like a brotherly thing — obviously they’re father figures to us — but we’re all really close.”
Booker and Williams still move like the defensive backs they once were. Williams last played in 2008 in the Arena Football League 2, but still regularly wears receiver’s gloves and baggy athletic shorts. Booker — known at previous stops for welcoming players into his home to meet his wife and daughter — often shows off his arm by zipping throws around the field during drills.
Both can do passable impressions of wide receivers if their DBs need someone to guard.
Williams said he’s not doing his job if it’s “Groundhog’s Day” for his players every time out. Each practice is different and geared toward individuals improving incrementally. And he can be tough because he’s already put in time to know them on a personal level.
“He’s like a player in the locker room,” cornerback Eric Lee said. “People relate to him a lot. He’s easy to talk to. Just like one of us. He’s a young guy. I think one thing that helps him out is that he’s extremely relatable, so people feel a lot more comfortable and open to talking to him.”
The coaches’ demonstrative way of teaching has made perhaps an even bigger difference to Alex Davis, who first tried football as a high school senior in 2014. He shifted from defensive end to outside linebacker in the new 3-4 scheme during the spring and continues to pick up the ins and outs of his new position.
Seeing the right technique and assignments has been important to the 6-foot-5, 255-pound sophomore from Riviera Beach, Florida. Heck, it doesn’t hurt the confidence to see Bray himself make plays on loose balls.
“The way they teach, I don’t see it as like an age thing,” Davis said. “They know what they’re doing. These guys, they tell us to the smallest detail how to fix something and you see it work.”
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Nebraska’s staff is old enough to know another thing about coaching: It hasn’t always been this way.
In a time when even Alabama’s Nick Saban — one of the most curmudgeonly head men in the game — says he’s moved past his one-size-fits-all-approach with players, other coaches know the days of just being a drill sergeant are gone. Jumping into line with the guys is one way to show they are invested.
“It lets our kids know how much we enjoy being around them. We enjoy the game and hopefully it’ll pay off in terms of them being passionate,” Parrella said. “It’s a different game. The whole setup. There’s a lot of good to the change. Coaching has changed in terms of, gosh, they were different back in the day.
“(Former Nebraska D-coordinator) Charlie McBride was completely different than coaches are today. And that’s not a bad thing. I loved how he coached us and pushed us and challenged us. We just do it in different ways — not the way it was in the old school.”
In his playing days, Bray said, he and everyone else obeyed a coach’s orders without question. Today’s players want an explanation. Today’s coaches — particularly those on Nebraska’s defensive staff — could measure their teaching with a Fitbit.
“It adds to the energy of our players,” Bray said. “They can feed off us. If they’re feeling low, we do a good job of everyone talking to them, communicating with them, so there’s never a lull through practice where it’s quiet.”
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