CHICAGO — Mohamed Barry squirmed in his padded seat. This was as uncomfortable as any offseason workout.
The Nebraska linebacker listened as a media member from Wisconsin asked about running back Jonathan Taylor’s average of more than nine yards per carry against the Huskers. A Michigan reporter brought up last year’s blowout in Ann Arbor.
“I honestly hate even watching that film,” Barry said. “When someone talks about (those games) ... I’m probably sweating through my suit right now.”
Indeed, Barry said, the NU defense feels so strongly about its transformation that some players have physical responses when revisiting the valleys of last season. Whether through strength training or a deeper understanding of schemes, the Blackshirts look back on their first year under Scott Frost and barely recognize the unit that finished among the worst in the country in most major statistical categories.
The head coach himself praised the defense time and again during his 60-minute session with reporters at Big Ten media days on Thursday. Frost recently saw six or seven defenders lifting 800 pounds on the squat more than once — something most weren’t close to a few years ago. In an offseason he deemed “exceptional,” that side of the ball has made the biggest strides because of the confidence that is accompanying the weight-room gains.
“Half of defense is energy, enthusiasm and hustle,” Frost said. “And I think that’s all going to be better.”
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Barry and fellow traveling teammate Khalil Davis agreed that they will be reacting more than thinking this year. They can watch film from last year and easily identify mistakes they made. One that sticks with Barry is when he fell for the “illusion” of a pre-snap motion against Purdue instead of sticking to his main key. Davis, a senior lineman, moved out of position in a big moment against Ohio State.
“I peeked in the wrong gap, and (the running back) was out the gate, touchdown,” Davis said. “It’s just simple things like, making sure I’m keeping my head in my gap.”
Barry listed players like linebackers Collin Miller and Caleb Tannor along with defensive backs Cam Taylor, Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke among those “salivating” to make their mark on the program. In 7-on-7 drills, most Huskers not involved in the play used to have non-football conversations off to the side. Now they’re arguing about schemes and philosophies.
Even the linebacker himself — one of the nation’s leading tacklers last year with 112 — is hungry for more. He’s been working on balance and being efficient in movements like backpedaling, breaking to the ball. They could be the difference as Nebraska eyes a run at the Big Ten West Division.
“Last year was the year that I felt like I had a coach that believes in me and a system that fit me,” Barry said. “As my confidence came up, I started making better plays. I’m trying to have the best year for this team, for this program and get us to Indianapolis. I’ve got so much to prove.”
Other accountability is also taking hold, Davis said. Strength coach Zach Duval tracks players’ sleeping and eating, so everyone wants to keep him happy. Competition is rampant — Davis is sure to note he put nine plates on a recent lift compared to brother Carlos’ eight. The defense now has a clear vocal and by-example leader in grad transfer Darrion Daniels, who has left an immediate impact since arriving in January. New defensive line coach Tony Tuioti has blended in quickly with a rambunctious unit featuring two sets of siblings.
The continuity of a second season with most of the same coaching staff also has players better trusting that the methods will lead to something bigger.
“I just see them believing it now,” Frost said. “I think they were dipping their toe into that pool of belief last year.”