LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco won’t pin the responsibility on one position or one person when saying where the Huskers’ pass rush will come from next season.
His intention is quite simple: “Everywhere. Anywhere.”
“One of the beauties of the way we do our business is the offensive players have to make a post-snap decision about where the fourth, fifth and/or sixth rusher might come from,” Diaco said.
The Huskers will have a different look to how they go after the quarterback in 2017, which goes with the shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme. One aim is to increase a sack total from last season (26) that ranked 11th among Big Ten teams.
Several defenders said they weren’t sure who the change might benefit most, but nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg knows where it has to start.
“I’d say it’s just everyone up front,” he said.
Stoltenberg and defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun both return with starting experience, and Akinmoladun last season had four sacks and 10 quarterback hurries. Carlos Davis becomes a defensive end in the 3-4 front.
“It’s anybody who wants it,” Davis said. “They want dogs out there, people who are going to be relentless, and that can be anybody.”
When it comes to those beyond the front three, however, Diaco said: “It just depends on who we’re gonna activate. But that player can be a challenge to pick up, if you don’t know who it is.”
Alex Davis was moved from defensive end to outside linebacker in the overhaul, and the rangy sophomore has said he feels more comfortable standing at the snap than coming from a three-point stance. Marcus Newby and Luke Gifford have been competing at the other outside spot, with Newby long considered a player with good pass-rushing skills.
What becomes most important, Alex Davis said, is just getting to the quarterback when your number is called.
“We do a lot of different things, everybody coming from different angles, so I feel like a lot of people are going to benefit from it,” he said.
Recent Diaco defenses have shown variety in who gets to the quarterback most.
A year ago with Diaco as head coach, Connecticut got four sacks apiece from defensive end Cole Ormsby and inside linebacker E.J. Levenberry, a Florida State transfer. The season before, the Huskies’ leaders were nose tackle Foley Fatukasi with eight and defensive end Luke Carrezzola with six. Ormsby had 3.5 in 2014.
On the 2012 Notre Dame unit that helped the Fighting Irish reach the national championship game with Diaco as defensive coordinator, 6-foot-6, 312-pound defensive end Stephon Tuitt had 12 sacks as the Fighting Irish finished with 34. Outside linebacker Prince Shembo had a combined 13 over the 2012 and ’13 seasons.
Nebraska has finished with fewer than 30 sacks each of the last three seasons, after Randy Gregory had 10½ of the Huskers’ 39 in 2013.
Stoltenberg said it will work best for NU when every defender is being effective. If the outside rushers are a threat, it might free space inside. If Stoltenberg can command more attention, it could create opportunities for the outside lanes.
“It’s a real cohesive system, so if everyone’s doing their job then things will definitely get done,” Stoltenberg said.
One secret to success for his best pass-rushing teams, Diaco said, was simply how hard they played and pursued.
“Honestly, a lot of the destructive harassment situations on the quarterback in the pocket, that I can just recently recall, have come from second-effort plays — where the defender just continues to thrash around — not necessarily a scheme that freed up somebody,” he said. “That can happen, but it’s more rare than somebody that just thrashes around with second effort and extra effort, and ends up impacting the play.”
NU quarterback Tanner Lee said he went against 3-4 defenses maybe four to five games a season during his two years as a starter at Tulane. Other teams could go to something similar in third-and-long scenarios.
It makes for pre-snap and post-snap reads for both the quarterback and his offensive linemen, and Lee said it’s been a test this spring.
“As much as they can throw people in the quarterback’s vision, and making us see different people, the harder it is on a quarterback,” Lee said. “And where they can change and come from different directions — and swap guys in and out, and get us out of rhythm — it works sometimes. It’s going to be good for the season.”
Nebraska Spring Game
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
TV: B103 (103.1 FM)