LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive line coach Hank Hughes is bullish on his unit’s ability to stop an opponent’s running game.
“We can be top five in the country,” Hughes said. “I mean, we’re built for that. Our body types are built for that. We can be as good as our technique allows us to be in stopping the run. ... When these guys are playing exactly how they’re supposed to be playing and playing hard, we’re going to be a hard team to run on.”
Hughes was then posed with this question: Are those body types built to rush the passer? Because NU has had little success this season generating a pass rush with just four down linemen.
The old-school coach, who often has a pencil tucked behind his ear, paused for five seconds, sensing the trap. He smiled.
“Yeah,” Hughes said. “When it’s time to rush the passer, we’ve got some guys who can rush the passer.”
Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya dropped back to pass 43 times in the Huskers’ 36-33 overtime loss to the Hurricanes. He was sacked once — by redshirt freshman defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun. Kaaya was lightly harassed a few other times, but otherwise had a relatively clean pocket on the 29 dropbacks in which Nebraska didn’t blitz him.
When the Huskers did blitz on the 14 other snaps, they sometimes rattled Kaaya — forcing a fourth-quarter interception, for example — and sometimes put such a strain on the secondary that Kaaya hit big passes of 38 and 34 yards. Blitzes are, by their nature, risky gambits that can put defensive backs in precarious positions. Nebraska would prefer to generate quarterback hurries and sacks with a four-man pass rush. The Huskers just haven’t been very good at it.
“There were a couple times we did a great job, and there was a lot of times when we didn’t do as good a job as we have to,” Hughes said. “We’ve got to get better at everything we’re doing. Two of our games have come down to the last play. There’s 80 plays in there. There’s a million things going on that could be better. A little bit better. That’s the margin of victory, right there.”
Defensive tackle Maliek Collins knows the front four has to be more disruptive.
“We’ve got to give our guys on the back end a chance, man,” he said. “We can’t have them covering for nine seconds.”
Coaching without two injured starters, defensive tackle Vincent Valentine and defensive end Jack Gangwish, defensive coordinator Mark Banker and Hughes tried rotations and wrinkles against the Hurricanes. Hughes used six four-man line combinations in the Miami game, rotating to varying degrees Collins, Akinmoladun, ends Greg McMullen and Ross Dzuris and tackles Kevin Williams and Kevin Maurice. Plus, Banker installed some movements just before the snap to reset gaps and get the offensive line off kilter.
The rotations may have kept players fresh, but they didn’t create much spark — Akinmoladun’s sack came with the standard four-man front alongside Collins, Williams and McMullen — and the movements were apparently so detrimental to NU’s run defense that Banker stopped calling them.
The final option — blitzing — included a three-man front with various linebackers and defensive backs coming after Kaaya. Banker used that three-man front three times against the pass.
Akinmoladun is in his first year at defensive end after NU’s former offensive coaching staff, against the opinion of Akinmoladun’s high school coach, let the 6-foot-4, 255-pounder start his career as a scout team tight end. Both Banker and Hughes lauded his progress.
Banker said he’s trying to create situations where Collins can get off the frequent double teams he’s seeing. Miami either double-teamed him or used a running back to chip off on Collins. Banker said he hadn’t seen that tactic since he coached standout lineman Stephen Paea at Oregon State. Running backs normally pick up blitzers or edge rushers.
Asked how he’s dealing with the increase in double teams, Collins said with a smile that he hasn’t adjusted yet.
“I’ve got to keep working and find an adjustment,” he said. “We’re just working on my technique, really.”
Collins is facing double teams in part because Nebraska lacks a top-end pass rusher who can challenge offensive tackles. Akinmoladun is still just three games into his career on the defensive line. McMullen, at 280 pounds, is not a natural pass rusher. Gangwish has been hurt. Dzuris, too, just played the third game of his career. Scholarship players A.J. Natter and Sedrick King have barely seen the field. Freshmen DaiShon Neal and Alex Davis are redshirting, and Banker would like it to stay that way. He’d also like to redshirt freshman tackle Carlos Davis, who made the traveling squad to Miami.
“When I look back at Nebraska film last year, there are some plays where there’s only one guy rushing,” Banker said. “They have three guys kind of standing at the line of scrimmage with Randy Gregory coming. When you don’t have that elusive pass rusher, you are who you are. You try to create some things. And that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”
In some cases against Miami, receivers were open so quickly — and Kaaya identified them instantly — that Nebraska’s line barely had a chance to get after him. Both of Miami’s first two touchdowns, pitch-and-catch slant patterns against a passive cornerback, fall into that category.
Williams, who started Saturday in Valentine’s absence, still believes the line can and should do more.
“That’s part of the game, the little three-step drops, and you try to get back there as quick as possible or get your hands up; do something,” Williams said. “Something to disrupt the pass. We take that upon ourselves, too, you know what I mean? Three-step or not, forget it, we should have been there. People say, ‘Hey, he threw the ball quick; there’s no way we could have gotten there.’ You want to bet? I’m going to work my ass off this week to make sure I’m there.”
Hughes said Nebraska needs “four dudes” getting after the quarterbacks, not just one or two. Attack the offensive linemen, he said. Attack their techniques. NU didn’t attack Miami well enough, he said, and players are “learning off the tape” as a result.
“I’m not happy to be 1-2,” Hughes said, “but I’m happy with the guys I’ve got.”
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