Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has a history with Hawkeyes but a heart for Huskers

Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has a history with Hawkeyes but a heart for Huskers
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — It was during his five years in Iowa City that Erik Chinander first felt that coaching itch.

Ask Nebraska’s defensive coordinator about the highlights of his playing career as a Hawkeye, and he won’t mention playing in the Orange Bowl to cap the 2002 season. The fact that he went from a walk-on in 1998 to a solid option on the offensive line by his senior year doesn’t come up, either.

“I knew very early,” he said, “that I was much better at helping the other guys get lined up and do what they were supposed to do than actually doing it.”

Iowa shared the Big Ten title in 2002, his final season, and he celebrated with his euphoric teammates and coaches afterward in a locker room in Minneapolis. A few weeks later, he spoke with his coach about a job. Kirk Ferentz was wrapping up his fourth campaign with the school.

We’d love to have you if there was an opening, Ferentz told him. But the best thing to do is get out and find experience where you can.

“So far the advice they gave me to spread my wings has been really good, and we haven’t turned back,” Chinander said. “I’m glad of where I’m at.”

He landed in Lincoln after previous stops at UCF, Oregon, the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and Northern Iowa. But Chinander never lost touch with his alma mater. He playfully argued with Scott Frost about the merits of the Hawkeyes during their time together in Oregon. Before he took the assistant job with Chip Kelly and the Eagles in 2013, he reached out to Ferentz for input.

Ferentz can still speak in detail about his former player, who as a boy bounced between his hometown of Allison, Iowa, and Waterloo. About how Chinander’s father, Gene, was a longtime high school football coach and his brother, Bret, is an engineer for John Deere.

“Chins has done a great job, and he’s really paid his dues,” Ferentz said. “… He’s just done a great job. He’s been rewarded, and he’s a really good football coach and a good person.”

Chinander would like to note for the record that this isn’t the first time he’s coached against Iowa. While he was an assistant with UNI, the Hawkeyes won 45-21 in 2005, then prevailed 17-16 in 2009  by blocking two last-second field goals the coordinator still laments. On years the schools didn’t meet, the coaching staffs occasionally collaborated on ideas.

But the 38-year-old went out of his way Tuesday to note that his parents and other family and friends will be wearing red in Kinnick Stadium on Friday. His favorite location in the entire Husker complex, he said, is where the Tunnel Walk’s red carpet meets the Memorial Stadium turf under an engraving that says, “I play for Nebraska.”

“I coach at Nebraska; I get to coach at Nebraska,” Chinander said. “There’s no doubt about it, I grew up in Iowa. But home is where the heart is and my home is in Lincoln — my heart’s in Lincoln.”

NU players Monday empathized with their coordinator. Safety Tre Neal said it would surely be “different” returning home. Linebacker Luke Gifford said the defense wants to play especially well in his honor. Mohamed Barry said the Blackshirts will help him get more excited for the future than the past.

Frost jokes that Chinander is finally on “the good side” after all those years of debates. But he can also imagine what his friend will feel upon arriving at Kinnick.

“I’m sure it will be as emotional for him going over there as it was for me coming back here,” Frost said.

Coordinators split on short week of prep

LINCOLN — Consider Nebraska’s coordinators split on their opinions about shorter practice weeks.

With the Huskers set to face Iowa on Black Friday, offensive coordinator Troy Walters said Tuesday that the condensed schedule doesn’t much hurt an offense that knows what it’s doing — plus game day is that much closer. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander would rather have that extra time.

“I hate the shorter weeks because I love practice,” Chinander said. “The guys love the games; I like the game, too, but Saturday is for the boys. … When we miss a day, I don’t like that very much.”

Defensive line coach Mike Dawson said Nebraska is piecing its new schedule together by working backward from the game. Sunday was a combination of Sunday and Monday. Monday was a blend of Monday and Tuesday.

“Today, in our little world, was a Wednesday,” Dawson said. “We kind of are on track, on schedule now. Just been a little less sleep while we (coaches) get our preparation in. Didn’t change the schedules for the guys too much, though.”

Wednesday will be a walk-through leading up to the 11 a.m. kickoff Friday in Iowa City.

The Hawkeye challenge

Scott Frost and players said Monday that the transition from Michigan State to Iowa isn’t too drastic. Coaches echoed those sentiments Tuesday, though more film study has brought out some differences.

For one thing, NU offensive line coach Greg Austin said, Iowa’s defensive line is taller than Michigan State’s. The Huskers will have to counter with better leverage. Walters sees a stout front full of 6-foot-6 and 6-7 frames in a unit that usually likes to bring just four rushers and let its secondary make plays.

“They don’t do a lot,” Walters said. “But what they do, they do well. They play together.”

Michigan State and Iowa’s defensive lines are equally good, Austin said, but they’re good in different ways.

The Spartans had thick, strong gap penetrators, Austin said. Iowa’s taller defensive linemen like to use their length to control the offensive line.

“They do a good job of shedding blocks and using their hands,” Austin said. “So we have to do a good job of using our hands and using our hip leverage and everything else to get up underneath these guys,” Austin said.

Austin smacked his palm with his fist. That was Michigan State’s defensive line.

“(Iowa) is going to be a fistfight but it’s more like, ‘You’ve got to get your leverage,’” Austin said. “Leverage, leverage, leverage.”

Chinander said Iowa tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson present a unique challenge with their ability to be dominant blockers as well as impact receivers. Dawson said the Hawkeyes’ offensive line works better in unison than any team he’s prepared for this season.

“We love our game plan,” running backs coach Ryan Held said. “Today was a really good practice. Our guys are dialed in and I think we’ve got some momentum going right now.”

Heart rate gets a kick

During games, special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt keeps track of his heart rate on an Apple watch. When NU kicker Barret Pickering hit the winning field goal in Saturday’s 9-6 win over Michigan State, Dewitt took a screenshot of his heart rate at that moment.

“It was about 135, 140,” Dewitt said. “It was pretty high. But it was a good feeling.”

One of Nebraska’s best special teams players, junior linebacker Jacob Weinmaster, was hurt for the Michigan State game, Dewitt said, as were a few other players Dewitt wanted to use on special teams. That made Dewitt nervous, too — his heart rate, he said, was at 128 beats per minute any time Nebraska lined up to kick off or receive a kickoff.

“That was not good,” he said.

Better than the record shows

Iowa is 7-4 this season, but Frost says the Hawkeyes are better on tape than that.

“They’ve got a defense that statistically — and watching them — it’s about as good as there is out there,” Frost said on the Big Ten teleconference. Iowa’s offense is “really multiple” in the way it attacks a defense.

Frost said Fant and Hockenson are the best tight ends he’s seen on tape this season.

“You have to look out for a lot of people’s running backs, quarterbacks and receivers, but there’s not too many teams you face where you’re game-planning for and having to worry so much about tight ends,” Frost said. “But the two guys they’ve got are as good I’ve seen.”

QB evaluation shows positives

Nebraska quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco had to set Adrian Martinez straight.

Martinez didn’t play as badly as he thought against Michigan State.

Sure, Martinez completed just 16 of 37 passes and fumbled twice, but Verduzco encouraged Martinez to consider the conditions and the quality of the defense he faced.

“It was a weird emotion, because he was excited that the team won, but he just felt like he didn’t play well,” Verduzco said. “I had to bring him back to reality and say, ‘There aren’t very many quarterbacks who can play well in that sort of environment when you’re that young.’”

Verduzco gave Martinez his evaluation on Sunday and the quarterback felt much better.

Verduzco said Martinez has become more comfortable in the offense because he’s “picking up on more clues in his environment” — things that Martinez might not consciously recognize.

Iowa’s defense, Verduzco said, will provide a stiff test for Martinez and NU’s offense.

“They’re good, man,” Verduzco said. “They do a great job. They’re a lot like Michigan State in a lot of ways in terms of their discipline, their approach to things.”

When Verduzco was at Northern Iowa, the Panthers played Iowa three times. Iowa’s defense is more diverse, “with different tools in the toolbox” today.

Everything Husker fans need to know about the Iowa Hawkeyes

A preview of Iowa, the final opponent in the first season of the Scott Frost era.

* * *

Record: 7-4 (4-4)

Offensive yards per play: 5.51 (T-79th nationally)

Defensive yards per play: 4.44 (7th)

Turnover margin: plus-7 (T-22nd)

Penalty yards per game: 47.2 (33rd)

Coach

Kirk Ferentz (150-101 at Iowa, 20th season)

The dean of Big Ten coaches — the dean of pretty much all college football coaches not named Bill Snyder — Ferentz pulled off the rare feat of successfully following a legend. Hayden Fry was a favorite in Iowa, and Ferentz has equaled, and in some ways surpassed, Fry’s success. Steady and sometimes unspectacular, Ferentz was on shaky ground after four mediocre seasons between 2011-14, when he also spent a lot of time raising money for Iowa’s indoor football facility. That’s been built, and Iowa’s program, since switching to morning practices, has been more competitive. The 63-year-old Ferentz has what amounts to a lifetime contract at Iowa that runs through the 2026 season. The pro-style offense hasn’t changed much in the last 15 years, the defense bends but rarely breaks and the return game is usually pretty good. Iowa has an identity. It’s Ferentz.

Offense

Type: Pro-style

Coordinator: Brian Ferentz

Father hired son, and to be fair, Brian has been a pretty good play caller since taking over. Iowa still has a zone-based run scheme that relies on well-coached linemen moving quickly in unison while a running back remains patient for a hole to emerge, often on the backside of the play. It’s not fancy, and it doesn’t break a lot of big plays, but it keeps defenses honest. Mekhi Sargent (575 yards) and Toren Young (547) are Iowa’s two top backs. The Hawkeyes’ play-action passing is a big-play operation thanks to tight ends Noah Fant and TJ Hockenson, two of the nation’s best, who have combined for 79 catches, 1,170 yards and 13 touchdowns. Iowa uses them together and separately on crossing routes, wheel routes and go routes. Nebraska’s linebackers and safeties will have to be on their game. Quarterback Nate Stanley is streaky, but he averages 7.4 yards per attempt, which means when he hits, it’s usually for big yards. He’s not much of a runner, and he can have fumble issues.

Defense

Type: 4-3

Coordinator: Phil Parker

He’s been with Kirk Ferentz since the beginning of his tenure in 1999. Parker coached defensive backs until 2012, when he took over as defensive coordinator, and he’s built Iowa into one of the nation’s best overall defenses. Iowa’s defensive line — featuring Parker Hesse, Anthony Nelson, Chauncey Golston, Matt Nelson and AJ Epenesa — is the best run-stuff/pass-rush combo in the Big Ten West. They’ll be hard for Nebraska to move around. Iowa had to replace all of its top linebackers from last season, but the Hawkeyes are getting serviceable play from Jack Hockaday, Kristian Welch and Nick Niemann. The secondary, anchored by safeties Jake Gervase and Geno Stone, has helped Iowa to 17 interceptions. It’s a good crew. Iowa generally relies on a four-man pass rush and forces opponents to put together long drives for touchdowns. The Hawkeyes, like Michigan State, are sound, tough and confident.

Players to watch

Fant and Hockenson: Super-fast Fant can play receiver, too, if need be, while Hockenson sneaks out of his blocking to slip behind linebackers. Iowa is more dangerous when both players are on the field, although Brian Ferentz doesn’t always pair them together.

Epenesa: The rare five-star player to commit to Iowa, Epenesa, whose dad played for Fry, has lived up to the hype. He has 13 sacks in two seasons and, at 6-5, 277 pounds, he’s almost ideal for a prototypical end. He’ll play many years in the NFL.

Amani Hooker: Stud of a strong safety who has four interceptions and 53 tackles this season. Hooker, a junior, is one of the quarterbacks of Iowa’s defense. While he’s not overly big — 6-foot, 210 pounds — he patrols the back end of Iowa’s defense quite well.

They said it

“They know what the opposing team is trying to do. They really do. They really study your plays, your run game and they’re communicating well.” — Nebraska offensive coordinator Troy Walters on Iowa’s defense.

“You know, 150 is the number, but all the players that have been part of this, that’s the story right there. That’s the fun part about it all.” — Kirk Ferentz on winning his 150th game at Iowa with the 63-0 victory over Illinois.

Three stats

9.21: Yards per attempt on third down for Iowa’s pass offense. The Hawkeyes have been explosive on that down.

28.45: Yards per kick return, which leads in the Big Ten and is third in the nation. Iowa receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette has 15 returns for 478 yards. He’s dangerous.

13: Sacks allowed by Iowa’s offensive line. That’s really good, and it speaks to Stanley’s occasional ability to get out of the pocket, plus the Hawkeyes’ ability to protect. Nebraska’s pass rush better pack a lunch.

Quick hits

» Sophomore receiver JD Spielman remains “limited” in practice, Walters said, and his status for Friday remains unclear after missing a game for the first time this season.

“We’ll just wait and see,” Walters said. “He’s day to day. Hoping to have him. But if we don’t, we’ll go with the same guys we played against Michigan State.”

» Redshirt freshman Damion Daniels played his best game of the year Saturday, said Dawson, the defensive line coach. The 6-2, 340-pound nose tackle recorded one tackle and a fumble recovery against Michigan State.

“Probably lines up well with the way he’s been training,” Dawson said. “He’s improved week to week, so I think it’s probably not a mistake that here at the end he’s playing a little bit better.”

» Defensive lineman Peyton Newell announced on social media that he received a Blackshirt. The senior from Hiawatha, Kansas, has played in every game this season and owns five tackles and an interception.

» Nebraska coaches are all bracing for a big recruiting push beginning Sunday that will extend to the Dec. 19 early signing period. Multiple assistants said the first priority will be to visit current commits before finishing out the 2019 class and delving into 2020.

There are 21 known commits in the 2019 group, with the final total likely to land between 25 and 30.

» Senior center Tanner Farmer was Nebraska’s offensive lineman of the week, Austin said, largely because of how frequently he finished blocks against MSU. Austin called it Farmer’s best game as a Husker.

“You go back and watch that game, he did a damn good job,” Austin said, adding that he didn’t see that level of leadership in Farmer earlier in the season.

Austin also said Farmer scared him with the high snap on Nebraska’s final kneel-down Saturday.

“I was like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’” Austin said. “He was like, ‘I told Adrian to go underneath and I was thinking about it too much.’ I’m like, ‘Ugh, Tanner, don’t make a good thing bad.’ Golly. That would have been the worst thing ever. We can laugh about it now, but my heart skipped a beat.”

Nebraska at Iowa

When: 11 a.m. Friday (6 a.m. Pregame)

Where: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

Radio: 103.1 FM

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