LINCOLN — Nebraska’s second spring football practice ran long Tuesday. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco installed a decent chunk of his 3-4 defense, and since it’s a new scheme, and lots of players are working in new positions, it’s one of those practices that could be mentally taxing.
Not that reporters would tell by talking to Diaco, who briskly fielded questions for the first time since his introductory press conference. He talked fast and in superlatives.
“I’ll tell you this: Everybody’s going to get better every day,” Diaco said. “So wherever they’re at — wherever the coaches are at, wherever I’m at, wherever the players are at, Coach (Mike) Riley’s charge is that everybody improves. And everybody’s going to improve.”
Diaco praised the Huskers’ “brainpower,” conditioning and “tangible skill.” He liked their excitement. He appreciated the energy. There’s no shortage of energy this spring. Not among players or on Nebraska’s defensive staff.
As Diaco talked, new cornerbacks coach Donte Williams jogged off the field. Stopped by a reporter, he called the first weeks with Diaco “amazing.”
“One word: passion,” said Williams, who added Diaco is “the best defensive coordinator in the nation.”
Diaco knows the game and all the positions, including the offense, Williams said, and mixes that with high-octane enthusiasm. Williams, who wears cleats and gloves to practice, is all for Diaco’s approach.
“Any time you have somebody who on a scale of 0 to 10 is a 20, how can you be a 9?” Williams said. “If he’s a 20, I’m going to be a 21.”
Unlike his recent tenure at Connecticut — where he was head coach — Diaco didn’t hire most of his defensive staff. Only safeties coach Bob Elliott — with whom Diaco worked at Notre Dame — has a lot of familiarity with Diaco’s 3-4 defense, known for its ability to limit big plays and be stingy inside its own 20.
Elliott, talking to the media for the first time since his hiring, said Diaco’s management style lends to the operation running smoothly.
“He can lay down those principles and sketch out how we’re going to operate in a very precise manner,” Elliott said. “It’s very easy for a coach — who’s committed — to figure it out very fast. Bob Diaco could go 100 different places and have things up and running in a heartbeat because he’s so clear as a communicator and his principles are so easy to understand.”
Diaco puts a premium on “clarity of communication.”
“If people don’t know exactly what to do, they won’t cut it loose,” Diaco said. So the assistants have spent “a lot of time together” in the last month “kicking the tires” on different ideas. Diaco has a cross-section of football minds in the defensive room: Elliott, a longtime coach who’s been a defensive coordinator at various spots; Williams and linebacker coach Trent Bray, young coaches with strong reputations for bonding with their players; and defensive line coach John Parrella, an NFL veteran who learned his trade by playing at the highest level.
That group has to grasp Diaco’s system as much as the players do. Elliott — whom Diaco calls “an encyclopedia of knowledge” — knows the system, and can help teach it to others, but some of the onus falls on Diaco himself.
“There’s a particular system that I’ve built, that I’ve worked in, that I’ve created and there are things I’ve experienced through positive and negative — you learn more getting victimized than not — so I’ve learned some lessons they wouldn’t have to learn,” Diaco said. “But there’s a lot of brainpower in that room. There’s a lot of great thinkers. We’ve already created a lot of great ideas. Even little ways to say things that are catchy.”
Assistant coaches get used to adjusting. At the college level, it’s a fluid business and, more often than not, coaches will teach in many different systems. Players, too, will play in several systems. One Husker cornerback, Boaz Joseph, has had four different defensive backs coaches. Williams is the fourth.
Williams, a former college player himself at Syracuse and Idaho State, knows that story. He knows it as a coach, too. In 2015 he coached at San Jose State. In 2016, he was at Arizona. Then he worked briefly for Mark Banker. Now he works for Diaco.
This is the business. No time to blink. Adjust or lose ground.
“I’ve been in football since I was 8 years old,” Williams said. “I’ve been in football now 26 years, right? In 26 years, I’ve had 25 defensive coordinators. As a player or as a coach, there’s only been one year when I’ve had the same defensive coordinator in back-to-back years. So I’ve learned 25 different defenses, 25 different schemes. So, to me, it’s about adapting.”