McKewon: Bob Diaco’s all-in approach taking hold as Huskers continue learning his defense

Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco led top-25 scoring defenses in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015 during stops at Notre Dame and Connecticut.

LINCOLN — Bob Diaco’s iPhones were lined up. One was bigger than the other, but they sat on his desk perfectly aligned.

Our interview had just ended as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator straightened something else on his desk. I told him that he’d mentioned during his introductory press conference that his family might label him obsessive-compulsive. I pointed to the phones. Had he always been like that?

“I imagine so,” he said. “As long as I can remember.”

Diaco, who hadn’t chatted with any reporters in more than two months, was gracious to give an hour of his time. He didn’t really want to talk schematics or personnel regarding his defense at NU. I knew that going in. We talked about a variety of topics, including and especially his love for food. When he goes on vacation this week, he’s cooking, trying out a few new recipes. He doesn’t always get the time to cook. Coaches grind hard.

I asked Diaco if he’d had a true day off since last July.

“Not one that I enjoyed,” he said.

He loves the work — the craft of building a team and a defense and getting one-on-one time with players.

“Teaching and coaching — intimate, drilled down, trying to build a mastery with a position,” Diaco said.

He has that role again as defensive coordinator. He’s the highest-paid assistant coach in Husker history and a splash hire from coach Mike Riley when few pundits or fans predicted it. Riley fired a close friend, Mark Banker, to take his defense up one more notch, and he found a guy in Diaco with a track record at Notre Dame and Connecticut of producing great defenses — especially at keeping opponents out of the end zone.

Diaco produced national top 25 scoring defenses in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015. Banker produced one such defense in that stretch.

One reason Riley hired Diaco was Riley’s explicit interest in using a 3-4 alignment. Diaco installed it this spring, and reporters saw it.

“There was no sense in putting who we are or what we’re going to be on display,” Diaco said. “At the end of the day, if you took 1,000 of our plays, 500 of them are four-down (linemen) and 500 of them are three-down. We pride ourselves on trying to eliminate tendencies and profiles.”

Diaco has a more holistic vision for the defense. Beyond X’s and O’s. Riley may have been looking for a man who knows the 3-4, but he hired, along with that expertise, Diaco’s broad, relentless vision for good football.

“I don’t believe that it’s just ‘the call,’ ” said Diaco, referring to the alignment and plan on a given play. “There’s calls that help — don’t get me wrong. And there’s calls that hurt. But the energy of the unit, the clarity of the unit, the overall movement of the unit, and the fundamentals of the unit and its principles and its players and their jobs — to me, that creates winning.”

Diaco put that vision into spring practice. Reporters who saw him in action noticed the tone he set for defenders from the opening minutes. An up-down hustle drill at the start to get their blood pumping got our attention. Diaco gave constant feedback after good and bad plays. He had an engaged, demonstrative coaching style. Sometimes Diaco would crouch or bend to get in the eye line of a player. He had a bat and a golden football on a table that he’d award to players after some practices. After reps against the offense, you’d hear sounds over the speakers indicating which side had won the down.

Players responded to Diaco’s style, too. The defense dominated one scrimmage so thoroughly that, as it wore on, you got the sense Riley kept it going so the offense could end on a high note. Diaco was relentless and, players noted, consistent. You saw a culture start to take hold.

“He’s high energy, and that’s something I feel like we were missing,” senior outside linebacker Marcus Newby said in April. “It’s something we have now, and guys can feed off it. Guys can play around that, and just have fun. Attack the ball, have fun, play fast.”

Now, in late June, I’m asking Diaco about the intangibles needed to play for him.

“If you don’t love football, we’re going to be out of alignment,” Diaco said.

Before that comment, he’d mentioned the concept of “pretend student-athletes.” Guys who don’t consistently go to class or get in their football work.

“People who don’t dedicate,” Diaco said. “You’re supposed to be here for eight hours a week right now? All eight of those hours should be locked in, hair on fire, passionate, energy, intensity. If that doesn’t happen, you’re a pretend student-athlete.”

It’s not surprising that Diaco said two “undercurrents” to his coaching philosophy are honesty and consistency.

“Without those two, it seems to me, you don’t have a chance,” he said.

He likes Nebraska’s defensive players. He likes the small-but-strong group of seniors, including cornerback Chris Jones, whom Diaco said is “laser-beam, locked in.” He loves the Husker fans — some of whom recognize him around town — for their constant positivity.

“It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s so appropriate. It’s really great. I’ve been in places that are as rabid as this, but not as collectively positive in its support. I like the people. I like how excited they are about the team. And, honestly, it’s not just the team. It’s UNL in particular. It’s athletics in particular. Volleyball’s sold out. It’s hard to get a baseball ticket. There’s a lot of stuff that is really cool about this place.”

And that defense as a whole? Not there yet, Diaco said. He didn’t expect it would be. His standards are high, and he wants that unit flowing together, on the same page. It’s about cutting through the distractions of 2017 and getting players to embrace the kind of focus and work needed to get “really good, or great at something,” Diaco said.

“Right now, that’s the phase we’re in,” Diaco said. “None of that’s specific to this Nebraska team. These are really good young men who want to be great that are working on the ‘why’ and the ‘how.’ ”

Everyone and everything in their right place.

Will Nebraska have a national top 25 scoring defense?

Nebraska hasn't had a national top 25 scoring defense since 2010, but new coordinator Bob Diaco cracked that threshold in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2015 while at Notre Dame and Connecticut. Can he do it again in his first season with the Huskers?

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