LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco wants to protect his players, not air Husker football’s “family business.” And he wants to be honest at the same time.
When a team is 4-5, that’s not easy, and Diaco said this balancing act led in part to his headline-making comments after Saturday’s 31-24 overtime loss to Northwestern, when he told reporters there was “no reasonable reason” to expect the defense to be further along than it was.
Which is now last in the Big Ten in yards per play allowed and 13th in points per game allowed.
Over the course of 20 minutes Tuesday, Diaco tried to clarify his comments by unpacking just one of what he said were many issues facing the defense when he arrived last winter.
According to Diaco, the Huskers didn’t know how to tackle.
“I’m not sure what it even was supposed to look like,” Diaco said. “I’m not sure they were pulling off what they were — I just don’t know. I just know when I went to that drill — to say ‘alarming’ would be an understatement. I could feel it on the players. My heart went out to them.”
Diaco was describing the “Hawk” rugby tackling system used by Nebraska in 2016, a system originally embraced by the Seattle Seahawks and pioneered by a company called Atavus. Diaco said he’d heard the switch to Atavus — which received $100,000 from Nebraska in 2016 — was a mandate from an administrator above coach Mike Riley. NU defenders practiced specific drills — one of them had defensive linemen on their knees, lunging at tackling pads — to improve safety and reduce targeting penalties, like the two picked up by safety Nate Gerry at the end of the 2015 season.
Except Diaco said the players didn’t like the approach and had regressed as tacklers.
Mark Banker — who coordinated NU’s defense in 2016 — disagreed.
“He’s full of it,” Banker said of Diaco. “He’s making excuses. It was not mandated by the administration — not to my knowledge. It was suggested, and then it was put forward by our head coach to bring that company in, and then we used that method.”
Banker said Nebraska enlisted Atavus for its the rugby-style tackling drills before he knew about the company’s involvement, but NU’s tackling also got much better in 2016. NU practiced three tackling drills three days a week last season.
“When we had time and were doing the drills, it paid dividends,” Banker said.
The only time Nebraska didn’t use the tackling drills in practices? Before the Music City Bowl.
“And it showed,” Banker said.
Banker said Riley originally suggested Nebraska go to the Hawk system in 2015, but Banker declined, as the Huskers were too close to the start of the season to make a switch in styles. Banker said Atavus developed and perfected teaching the system, so the company helped Husker coaches implement drills and track tackling statistics to chart improvement.
“The general consensus of this thing is all the players liked it, all the coaches who are still there on his staff — Trent Bray and John Parrella — liked it, and a lot of players felt more comfortable because the whole genesis of the thing is you take the head out of tackling,” Banker said. “The only person who doesn’t believe in it — and thinks it’s a mess — is the new guy.”
Diaco said his tackling drills are “beautiful, safe, wonderful” and there was “no way” he was using the Atavus system. Players told The World-Herald before the season they no longer practiced the rugby tackling drills.
“Coach Diaco came in with what he wanted to do, and that’s what we’ve been doing,” defensive end Khalil Davis said in August. “It’s basically like a normal tackle — head in front of the ball.”
Nebraska’s tackling was good against Northwestern, Diaco said. He praised several defenders, including Marcus Newby and Lamar Jackson, for their improved tackling in the game.
Diaco continues to stand firm that his defense will become great if he’s given the time to develop it.
“There’s no doubt what we’re going to become,” he said. “It’s proven. We’ve done it before. It’s the course of things.”
How long will it take?
“Definitely, definitely, definitely a full cycle,” Diaco said. “They need a full cycle of strength and conditioning, nutritional conditioning, intellectual conditioning, more skill development.”
Players need more “aptitude” to close “gaps.” Assistants also need more time to jell as a staff. The death of former safeties coach Bob Elliott — whom Diaco hired away from Notre Dame — was “very disruptive” to the continuity of the program.
“Strong coaches, strong teachers, great guys, highly competitive and smart,” Diaco said of the defensive assistants. “We just need time together.”
This season, Diaco said, the focus has been to have one more point than the opponents.
“Twelve points separate 4-5 from 7-2,” Diaco said. “Not that 7-2 is acceptable. But 12 points total.”
Nebraska lost by seven points to Oregon and by four to Northern Illinois before falling in overtime to Northwestern.
Halfway through his press conference, Diaco started to sound like he was making a case not only to the media, but to new Athletic Director Bill Moos, who’s in the midst of assessing the football program. Diaco said Moos is a football guy who played the game (at Washington State) and understands it’s been years since Nebraska won a conference title.
“He can see the common denominators,” Diaco said.