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LINCOLN — I saw a future assistant defensive coordinator the other day.
He was a tall, strapping kid wearing a fresh, new Blackshirt jersey. He had tears streaming down his cheeks. He talked about passion and responsibility, said it was time to start paying the rent every day.
Garrett Nelson. Remember that name.
“He plays like his hair is on fire,” Erik Chinander said. “He’s what Nebraska is all about.”
Chinander is Nebraska’s current defensive coordinator. He’s going to need Nelson’s help in the very near future.
Nelson’s problem is experience. He doesn’t always know where to go. But he gets there in a hurry, and when he gets there he tries to level something. That’s a start.
Chinander’s problem is he doesn’t have nearly enough heat-seeking missiles like Nelson. Or enough able bodies to stop the run, make a tackle or a play. Any play.
Nebraska ranks 10th in the Big Ten in total defense, 11th in rushing and pass defense and 12th in scoring and third-down defense. Thank you, Maryland and Rutgers.
Here’s another fun stat: In nine road games under Chinander, NU has given up at least 31 points. That’s no way to get to a bowl game.
After the latest road loss at Purdue, the Boilermakers pointed out that a lot of times they knew what Nebraska’s defense was going to run based on film study. Including on the winning reverse.
Where have I heard that before?
Go back to 1999, when Texas quarterback Major Applewhite said the same thing about Charlie McBride’s Blackshirts. That was before Uncle Charlie’s last group of pit bulls smothered Texas in the Big 12 title game — in the same scheme.
Unpredictability on defense is overrated. Passion and playmakers are not.
There’s a segment of Husker fans who are on Chinander’s case. He’s Scott Frost’s buddy. Only been a defensive coordinator for four years. Some of them would like that to be the limit.
Judge Chinander when he’s got a full deck. Or at least when he’s holding more cards than he does now.
Where have I seen this before? From McBride, who morphed from Husker fan whipping boy to coaching legend. It was an amazing thing to watch.
I bring up McBride not because Chinander is the next Charlie. But because they have a connection. Chinander sought out the retired coach last year. McBride gave him his prized Blackshirts belt buckle. And some advice.
Chinander won’t share that advice, but I can guess.
- Don’t answer the phone after a loss. Before McBride was a legend, he was constantly being blamed for any Nebraska shortcoming.
I remember talking to McBride the Sunday morning after a home loss to Washington, in which the Blackshirts allowed 20 fourth-quarter points. When I asked Charlie how his evening was, he said fine, except for the crank calls from Husker fans after midnight, calling for him to leave town.
- Also, convince Frost to get a bruising offensive line and run game as soon as possible.
McBride spent most of his career at Nebraska in the shadow of Tom Osborne’s offenses. Chinander might already know the feeling. One key difference: Osborne’s offenses controlled the clock and time of possession, keeping opposing offenses off the field.
This year, NU opponents have had the ball an average of nearly five more minutes per game. Chinander’s defense isn’t strong enough to carry that weight.
- Go find some passionate assistant coordinators.
McBride had some of the best assistant defensive coordinators in NU history. Jason Peter. Grant Wistrom. Mike Minter. Mike Brown. And many more.
These were players. They were not hired coaches. But they were coaches on the field. Leaders. They were the sheriffs. They policed practices. They motivated.
McBride would dial up the blitz or coverage. The players made it work.
It looks like Chinander might have that kind of guy in Nelson. There are some other candidates for passionate leaders among several freshmen sitting out this year.
It’s a start. The cupboard isn’t near full. Chinander needs pass rushers and run stoppers and linebackers and safeties. He needs depth. He needs talent.
And that’s the thing. All those assistant coordinators under McBride: They were great players.
- Finally, make that connection. After one spring game in the late 1990s, I ran into McBride and some of his former players at Barry’s Bar and Grill. The suds and stories were flowing.
I’m not suggesting Chinander should go out drinking with his players. But there was a clear connection with McBride and his players. Charlie could be a bear to play for. But his tough love reached in and grabbed them, too.
The best defenses have that connection between coach and group. Barrett Ruud, now the linebackers coach for the Huskers, saw it during his one year with coordinator Bo Pelini in 2003. That defense ran through walls for Pelini.
“How do you get it? It’s a hard question,” Ruud said. “I don’t always know where it comes from, but I do know that belief means a lot.”
Ruud might have started it by scooping up a fumble and scoring in the 2003 season opener.
“Sometimes it’s one play, sometimes it’s one game,” Ruud said. “I do know that when belief comes, it changes everything.”
You could see it in Nelson’s emotions this week. Nelson’s life changed. One day soon, he’ll get ample opportunity to return the favor.