Erik Chinander

“Good defense makes the whole team better,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “Our defense is better. We’re better because we’re bigger and stronger, better because of adaptation of scheme, better because of so many additions we got.”

LINCOLN — If this was the passing of a torch, it was the coolest torch in college football history.

Late last season, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander got a visit from legendary Blackshirts guru Charlie McBride. The two had become close in Chinander’s first year at Nebraska. McBride is always willing to help — if he’s invited.

Chinander couldn’t get enough. He wanted to immerse himself in the Blackshirt tradition. It was his responsibility now. He felt the weight.

So Uncle Charlie said he was stopping by and wondered if Chinander had any Blackshirt helmet stickers he could have. He did.

Little did Chinander know that McBride had a present for him, too.

He handed Chinander a velvet bag.

Charlie McBride

Blackshirts guru Charlie McBride throws the bones as members of the 1997 Nebraska national championship team are acknowledged. 

Chinander opened it. His jaw dropped.

It was a giant Blackshirts belt buckle, with the skull and crossbones logo engraved on it. Holy Wistrom and Peter.

“I said, ‘What’s this?’ and he said, ‘That’s for you,’ ” Chinander said. “I said, ‘Coach, I can’t accept this. It’s numbered, it’s a limited edition.’ He says, ‘It should be yours. It should be in your hands.’ ”

Now it’s on his belt, for game days and dress-up occasions, Chinander says. It’s the little traditions that mean the most, especially when handed directly from the Godfather of the Blackshirts.

Heavy is the belt that wears the Blackshirt buckle. But Chinander is ready to do some heavy lifting this time around.

If you’re looking for signs of hope in the spring game, it may not come on the offensive side of the ball. Scott Frost’s machine is expected to take a step up in 2019, but several playmakers will either not play or see limited time Saturday — and some aren’t even here yet.

That’s OK. Let’s face it: you know Frost’s offense, led by returning star quarterback Adrian Martinez, is going to be there.

If the Blackshirts can show marked improvement, optimism for 2019 will go up a couple of notches.

Will it happen? All spring the theme from Frost has been the defense having its way with the offense.

A group with experience, energy and confidence. Between the lines of what’s been said, that’s been the story of the spring.

Many already expect Frost’s second season to be a leap year, based on the second-year growth spurt at UCF and based on what Frost himself has said. Imagine what a capable defense could mean for that curve.

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“Good defense makes the whole team better,” Chinander said. “Our defense is better. We’re better because we’re bigger and stronger, better because of adaptation of scheme, better because of so many additions we got.”

Chinander had a tough initiation in 2018. He inherited a beaten-down bunch with bad habits. Improvement started from the ground up, basics and fundamentals, etc. Meanwhile, during Nebraska’s 0-6 start, the defense gave up more than 40 points in three games. And who could forget giving up 17 fourth-quarter points at Northwestern in an overtime loss? Well, they could.

Chinander heard it from the fans the same way McBride did back in the day. A belt buckle can’t save you. But better players, especially up front, and familiarity that breeds confidence are a perfect tonic.

The growth year goes for defense, too. Chinander had his stamp on that 13-0 season by UCF. In that second year, his defense ranked second in the nation in takeaways, and they shaved 14 points off of their points allowed average from the year before.

They want to do that and more this season. Limit big plays, force more punts and, of course, pile up the turnovers and turn the field over to Frost and Martinez.

All of that will start up front. Good thing that the defensive line has been the talk of the spring. Frost even called it the best position group of the spring.

Darrion Daniels, the intense grad transfer from Oklahoma State, has energized an older group. Seniors Carlos and Khalil Davis, junior Ben Stille and Darrion’s “little” brother Damion Daniels figure to make this a position of strength — one that can neutralize Big Ten offensive lines and also chase down opposing quarterbacks.

There are elder statesmen in the back, too, with senior Lamar Jackson and junior Dicaprio Bootle. Safety is a question, as is a thin linebacking crew behind senior Mohamed Barry.

But when you’re good up front and at corner, you have a chance, as they say. And the light seems to have come on for the older guys.

“It feels like we’re coaching some grown men this year,” Chinander said. “How they’re working, how they’re going about their business. I don’t know if I’d say it was 180 degree difference, but it’s at least a 90 degree turn.

“I thought we were going to be pretty good up front. When you’re good up front, the rest of the team catches up. I don’t think we’re ready to go into the College Football Playoff right now, but I’m pleased with where we’re at.”

Tony Tuioti certainly has no complaints. Sometimes a new assistant can transform a position group, but the new defensive line coach found his group already wired for action. There have been several skirmishes during practice.

“When the guys are really trying to compete, it happens,” Tuioti said. “It’s like brothers vs. brothers, they punch each other, grab each other. I love it. I’d rather it be that way. I’d like to see them aggressive all the time.

“You can teach them later, there’s a time and place for all that stuff.”

If it’s football season, that means Chinander and wife Megan are due in the delivery room. They had one daughter born two days before Oregon’s 2014 season opener. Their other daughter arrived in the middle of a spring football season.

Their third child is expected next week. Chinander won’t be out recruiting, unless it’s diapers.

“My wife is the best,” Chinander said. “She’s the boss at home and I’m the boss here.”

He’s got the belt buckle — and perhaps an improved defense — to prove it.

Sports columnist

Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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