LINCOLN — There’s a long black curtain atop the Hawks Center. It sits behind head coach Scott Frost during his press conferences to cover a view of the Nebraska indoor practice field.
Anyone in the building passing by wouldn’t be able to see the Huskers’ second spring practice on Tuesday. Behind the curtain and a set of double-doors, you can hardly hear the whistles and thumps of pads.
The rebuilding of Nebraska football is happening in the shadows. And Stanley Morgan likes it all.
Especially the playbook. What’s he like about it?
“Everything,” he said with a smile. “I can’t tell you (more). It’s a secret.”
There’s a newness spreading inside the Husker football program with hints of familiarity. Morgan returning to the team following a record-setting 986 receiving yards in 2017 bridges the gap between last year’s offense and Frost’s new up-tempo scheme. Morgan reiterated on Tuesday he didn’t think too hard about foregoing his senior year for the NFL, but Frost returning to Nebraska did make the decision that much easier.
“I mean, you saw their offense last year, you know they throw that thing up for everybody so it’s going to be a good fit,” Mogan said.
Following a week off for spring break, day two of spring camp wasn’t as good as day one 11 days ago, Frost said. But with all this newness — the morning practices, the fast-paced reps — his guys seem to be leaning in.
“Usually when you’re coming off a season like the one they had last year, guys are anxious for something new and a new way of doing things,” Frost said. “I think guys are excited about a new direction and a new way of doing things, and they’ve bought in really fast.”
The offseason for Morgan back home in New Orleans was a reintroduction to the basics — route running, pass catching. After the offseason weight program he packed on six pounds of muscle.
“The first workout, man, was crazy. I couldn’t walk for like a week,” Morgan said.
The offseason has also been a slow acceptance of being the old guy in the receivers room.
He’s now the elder receiver telling guys it’s OK to mess up a play. Not to let it ruin their day.
Frost said Tuesday he thinks Tyjon Lindsey and JD Spielman could be guys who flourish in this offense. Coaches also seem impressed with junior-college transfer Mike Williams. In space, Frost said, you get them the ball and good things can happen.
For Morgan — who offensive coordinator Troy Walters has said many times could be a monster in this system — it’s up to him to lead the young guys through this spring.
“After the first workout we all bonded together. We were all just sitting there, we couldn’t move,” Morgan said. “That’s the main thing right now, just bonding and make sure you know everybody is getting together and figuring it out.”
It’s no secret Morgan wants to head to the NFL after his senior year. Which is why during this spring he’s approaching things a little differently. A lot will be thrown at the team in the coming weeks. Frost plans to unload the most of the offense.
Which is why Morgan’s mindset is different now than even a few months ago.
“Just preparing myself for the practice,” Morgan said. “You know, preparing myself like a pro and preparing myself like a leader. I gotta come ready every day. I gotta come lead the guys. I can’t take any days off.”
JD Spielman shooting for expanded role; Dedrick Young among linebackers with fresh start
LINCOLN — Scott Frost visited JD Spielman three years ago when the coach was offensive coordinator at Oregon and the player was an electric playmaker for a powerhouse high school in Minnesota.
So while Nebraska’s new head coach continues to learn about the current Huskers, he could say one thing with confidence following Tuesday morning’s football practice: Spielman is the kind of player he wants in his offense.
“I think him and Tyjon (Lindsey) are both the type of kids that flourishes in our offense,” Frost said of the two sophomore wide receivers. “Guys that can win in space. You get ’em the ball in space and they can make things happen with it. JD’s done really good things out here the first couple days. He’s still learning like everybody else, but I see a lot of potential out of both those guys.”
Spielman, who also returned kicks a year ago, said he’s working at punt returner in practice along with Lindsey, senior wideout Stanley Morgan and junior college transfer Mike Williams. All are now wearing towels underneath their arms during workouts to help keep their elbows from flaring out on catches.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Spielman said he is also lining up at running back in a couple formations. That was his position at Eden Prairie High, where he rushed for 1,259 yards and 19 touchdowns on 102 carries.
“It takes me back to high school,” Spielman said. “It’s not nothing new being in the backfield. It’s just my first time being in the backfield in college.”
A fresh start
Dedrick Young, Nebraska’s top returning tackler from last season, said his assignments will look different this fall. That will be life for all the inside linebackers.
The senior from Peoria, Arizona, is aware of his situation.
Juco transfer Will Honas has let his on-field play do the talking. Junior Mo Barry has looked good. And a variety of younger players — like sophomores Avery Roberts and Pernell Jefferson and redshirt freshman Andrew Ward — are also in the mix.
“It’s football, so we know there’s going to be competition,” said Young, who made 80 stops last fall. “But we’re all just out there helping each other try to get better each and every day. We know what comes with playing football so we all know what’s happening out there.”
Young, listed at 6-foot-1, 235 pounds, said he gained seven pounds of muscle and dropped 2 or 3 percent of his body fat during winder conditioning. Now he’ll be shedding old directives in favor of new ones from linebackers coach Barrett Ruud and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander.
“We’re not running downhill this time,” Young said. “We’re shuffling and reading.”
Husker defensive coordinator Erik Chinander wants to build a Blackshirt defense to fit fast offense
LINCOLN — When they met at Northern Iowa, Erik Chinander coached offense and Scott Frost coached defense. They became fast friends, trading in the same Midwestern plain talk that laces their interviews.
Frost got a job coaching wide receivers at Oregon in 2009. In 2010, Chinander moved to Oregon — and in with Frost — for a mere internship on defense. He left a full-time job at UNI for peanuts and back pats in Eugene.
The risk paid off. He later became Frost’s defensive coordinator at Central Florida, which finished 13-0 last season.
The Blackshirts now belong to him.
Nebraska’s defense — coming off a year so hideous it ranked as the Big Ten’s worst against the run in league play — must be rebuilt to compete with perennially elite units at Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, and Chinander has to do that knowing one thing: Frost isn’t slowing down his offense.
Frost will install a spread, no-huddle, fast-tempo, big-playmakin’ scheme that wears out and busts open opposing defenses.
That’s Frost’s signature. Four of his five offenses have averaged at least 43 points.
If Frost’s system hums, it scores fast and often. If it doesn’t, a three-play series can be over in a blink. And that can put some stress on a defense. Chinander knows that and doesn’t complain.
“There are times I’d like to slow it down a little bit, but this is his show,” he said.
Chinander says he’s “all-in” for Frost’s style, and, in being so, tailors his defense accordingly.
Since Nebraska will go fast on offense, opponents get more drives. South Florida scored 42 on UCF last November — but scored on only 37 percent of its possessions. That’s six touchdowns, six punts, two turnovers and two drives that ended without points.
Thus, in a perfect world, Chinander said, Nebraska’s defense has 22 starters — the kind of depth that will minimize fatigue if an opponent’s possessions start to pile up.
So there’s no need to put much stock in total yards allowed, Chinander said. He emphasizes “stats that work for us.”
Takeaways. Sacks. Yards allowed per carry. Explosive plays allowed. Points on defense.
At UCF, Chinander’s defenses generally did well in those areas — especially considering the makeup of the American Athletic Conference, a diverse league full of dynamic option offenses.
The Knights had 32 takeaways last season, which ranked second nationally. In 2016, UCF had 26 takeaways, which ranked 18th. Nebraska hasn’t had more than 23 in a season since joining the Big Ten.
UCF had 27 sacks in 2017 — 57th nationally — and 38 in 2016, which tied for 19th. Nebraska has ranked in the nation’s top 25 just once since joining the Big Ten — in 2013, with Randy Gregory.
Against the run, UCF’s defense was better in both 2016 and 2017 than Nebraska, though the Huskers’ run D under Bob Diaco couldn’t have been much worse. In 2016 UCF allowed 3.83 yards per carry — Nebraska allowed 4.44 — while, in 2017, UCF allowed 4.17 yards per carry. Diaco’s D allowed 5.57. Since joining the Big Ten, Nebraska has never been better than its 3.77-yards-per carry average in 2015, when the Husker front four included two NFL defensive tackles, Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine.
That defense, coordinated by Mark Banker, employed an aggressive approach with its defensive linemen, who’d often dart through gaps to try to make plays behind the line of scrimmage. Opponents were dissuaded from running the ball; no defense in the nation faced fewer carries per game in 2015 than Nebraska did.
Chinander prefers a 3-4, but his system appears more similar to Banker’s than Diaco’s, whose two-gap 3-4 asked linemen to “build a wall” along the line of scrimmage with linebackers filling the gaps. It was supposed to create a kind of trap, much like Bo Pelini’s two-gap scheme once did. Diaco also didn’t like to bring pressure against the pass, preferring to cover with seven or eight defenders in a zone.
“We’re more on the side of a one-gap 3-4 with occasional two-gappers,” Chinander said. “Very aggressive in bringing a fourth or a fifth rusher and playing up on people in coverage.”
Nebraska will prioritize pressuring the quarterback, Chinander said. Nebraska’s leading sack returner is defensive end Ben Stille, who had just 3½ sacks last season.
“Either we’re going to have the personnel to get to the quarterback or I’m going to have to manufacture it,” Chinander said. “That’s my job. We’re going to get it done. I don’t know if it’s going to be we line up with four or we line up with three and do blitz packages and get there, but we’ll get there. It’s a very aggressive style.”
Outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt said that before working with Chinander he generally preferred a 4-3 system for its simplicity and directness in producing a four-man pass rush. Many 3-4s, Dewitt said, are “jack of all trades, master of none.”
But Chinander’s system is flexible and player-friendly.
“It’s very easy for my outside ’backers to look like an overhang 3-4 player or to look like they’re playing a true defensive lineman, or to look like they’re a linebacker in the box,” Dewitt said. “It’s so much easier of a transition for those guys to do that within the calls, and it makes sense. It’s a very easy system to learn, in my opinion. It’s hard for the outside ’backers to screw it up. Makes my job way better. I can focus on technique, not on assignment.”
Chinander said finding pass rushers is important, but he pointed first at the nose tackle, who has to be “heavyweight champion of the world.”
“You have to have an inside linebacker who can run the show and you have a safety who can run the show,” Chinander said. “If you can get some corners to go along with it you’re doing really well.”
Like other Husker coaches, Chinander has watched players on film to get a sense of NU personnel. He’s likely to find that the front seven is ripe with options and experience, while the secondary, even if experienced, lacks depth.
But the focal point, as spring practice reboots Tuesday, will first be on creating a culture. Chinander is reading up on the Blackshirts tradition — who should get them, when and why — and is encouraged by the response he’s already seen from Huskers in winter conditioning. Nebraska defenders initially embraced, then were exhausted by, Diaco’s direct, military-style teaching methods, which stood in contrast to former head coach Mike Riley.
Chinander and Frost, close friends for a decade, are on the same page.
“You can be a player’s coach and hold people accountable,” Chinander said. “They want it and they need it. This group, they realize that maybe they got away with something before, but it wasn’t right.”