Fed by ‘participation patterns,’ more Husker defenders get to eat in Bob Diaco’s rotation-heavy defense

LINCOLN — The biggest play of Khalil Davis’ Husker career happened with his twin brother, Carlos, just yards away.

Carlos played nose tackle. Khalil played end. On third-and-long, Northern Illinois quarterback Daniel Santacaterina tried a quarterback draw, and Khalil, looping around Carlos on a stunt, swallowed up Santacaterina for an 8-yard loss.

Before Khalil left the field, Carlos made sure to get a full-body chest bump with his twin.

“When he made those plays, it kind of fired me up,” Carlos said Tuesday. “He’s ready, he can play.”

And in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s rotation-heavy defense, Khalil Davis, a backup, is playing. A lot. So is Deontre Thomas at nose tackle. And Mohamed Barry at inside linebacker. And Tyrin Ferguson at outside linebacker. Ditto for Alex Davis. Even Sedrick King got a few snaps.

Diaco has a lofty phrase — “participation patterns” — for his approach to frequently rotating players in his front seven, but, in NU’s 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois, Diaco backed up his words with action. Though the Huskers trailed for most of the game, Diaco stuck to his plan and rotated players.

Counting his rare use of nickel and dime packages, he used roughly 20 personnel combinations against Northern Illinois.

The starting front seven — Carlos Davis, Freedom Akinmoladun, Mick Stoltenberg, Luke Gifford, Dedrick Young, Chris Weber and Marcus Newby — got the most snaps together.

But Barry would spell Young for a few snaps. Then, Barry would spell Weber. Then, Ferguson, an outside linebacker, came in for Newby. Stoltenberg would leave and Thomas, a true freshman, would come in. Khalil Davis would usually replace Akinmoladun. Alex Davis came in to rush the passer as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end.

Gifford, Carlos Davis, Thomas, Akinmoladun, Barry, Young and Ferguson. That was one personnel combination for a few snaps.

Gifford, Carlos Davis, Stoltenberg, Khalil Davis, Weber, Young and Newby. That was another.

On and on it went. And it worked.

“I enjoy it a lot because I know I have to be prepared,” Khalil Davis said.

And the defense can be fresher, Diaco said.

“The players can play harder, longer collectively,” he said.

Said Weber: “It’s going to be a long year in the Big Ten and that’s another great perk of that is to be able to rotate guys, keep guys fresh, keep them healthy for the season.”

Against spread teams that make Nebraska defend the whole width of the field — and call a lot of “extreme left” or “extreme right” running plays — this is important, Diaco said.

“Some of these plays have been turning over every 10, 12 seconds,” Diaco said. “So having to run to the right and to the left and to the right and to the left — for a guy that’s 310 pounds, that can get really taxing. It’s not your prototypical or standard kind of three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust running, rushing attack. It’s a lot of side-to-side running. So the big boys get tired, and we have to make sure we get them out before they get tired and don’t produce.”

Nebraska’s play in the red zone and on third down, Diaco said, was proof. While opponents have converted 42.5 percent of their third downs thus far against NU, the Huskers have only given up 4.7 yards per play on third down. Opponents have scored on just 69.23 percent of their trips into NU’s red zone, which ranks 24th nationally.

“The side byproduct, which is fantastic, is development, so we’re getting a lot of guys reps and game experience,” Diaco said. “There are so many young players playing in these games, it’s incredible.”

Ferguson, a sophomore from New Orleans, is an example.

He had an interception in the opening game against Arkansas State. Against NIU, he played a handful of snaps early in the game in relief of Newby, who’s likely to miss the Rutgers game with a pulled hamstring.

When Newby got injured Saturday, Ferguson entered the game for extended snaps. He was on the field for NIU’s touchdown drive. While the Huskies marched for their game-winning score, it had little to do with Ferguson’s performance.

“Assignment sound, was in his spot, played hard, made plays,” linebackers coach Trent Bray said.

Could this system affect chemistry? Carlos Davis didn’t think so.

“You have to learn how to play with different people,” he said.

Gifford and Carlos Davis have had to learn that most often. Those two stayed on the field for nearly every snap. Gifford is Nebraska’s most versatile defensive player, playing outside the box as a linebacker and lining up as a traditional defensive end. Diaco went with a four-man defensive line more than 10 times against Northern Illinois, and Gifford, hand on the ground, was usually the guy lining up over an offensive tackle.

In those situations, Carlos Davis could slide down to a defensive tackle. When his brother was in the game, NU usually had a three-man line. On Khalil’s big play, Carlos played nose. Khalil played end. To Carlos’ left was Alex Davis. Gifford was a spy linebacker just behind Carlos Davis. The setup, used with Nebraska’s dime defense, had three guys playing different positions from their usual assignments. It resulted in one of NU’s best defensive plays of the game.

It also triggered a twin celebration. Just how Khalil and Carlos used to draw it up in high school in Blue Springs, Missouri, when they often met at the quarterback. They’re more excited for each other than they are when they make their own plays.

“That’s kind of how we feed off each other,” Khalil Davis.

In Diaco’s defense, a lot of Huskers are eating.

Rutgers at Nebraska

When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium

Radio: 103.1 FM

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