The Blackshirt tradition of Nebraska football goes all the way back to the early 1960s. While some still look at the practice jerseys of defensive starters as exactly that — no more, no less — the hype surrounding the tradition has grown exponentially over the years, especially with those who have worn them.
The last time the Huskers arguably had a complete unit worthy of being called “The Blackshirts” in terms of hype and production was during the 2009 season when Ndamukong Suh and a litany of eventual NFL-bound prospects were trotted out as arguably one of the best Nebraska fans had ever seen, if not the absolute best. Heck, Big Red fans would’ve taken the slightly less dominant 2010 version in recent years.
To get an idea of whether or not new defensive coordinator Erik Chinander will be able to bring back the mystique of the modern-day Blackshirt tradition, here are a few things to watch for during spring practice.
1. Overall aggression
Chinander’s defenses pride themselves on going whistle-to-whistle and taking advantage of the opposition’s mistakes. In 2016, UCF recovered 46 percent of their opponents' fumbles and logged 15 interceptions, returning four for touchdowns. This gave them a national ranking of Nos. 23 and 22 in those categories, respectively.
The uptick in performance one season later was beyond impressive. The Knights would recover 71 percent of their opponents’ fumbles while intercepting 20 passes, returning three for scores. This was good for national rankings of 13th and second, respectively.
“This team will lead the country in effort, I don’t know about the stats yet, we gotta get that thing all figured out, but we’re gonna play hard,” said Chinander in a Jan. 8, 2016 interview with KnightNews.com. “It’s a team that this community will be proud of.”
This sounds very similar to what Frost has been saying about what he expects from his teams overall.
2. Frustrating the offensive tackles
Nebraska football fans love their offensive linemen, but the defensive pass rush has been nearly non-existent over the past several seasons. While promising young defensive linemen will get their opportunities to shine, if Husker fans hear that penetration off the edge is a regular thing, especially by the men up front, it should be welcomed news.
Freedom Akinmoladun (above, right), a defensive end who was expected to cause havoc in 2017 did anything but. He placed dead last on the team in sacks with one, trailed all defensive linemen with 1.5 tackles for a loss (that was good for No. 10 out of 16 players who notched any), and was credited with just two quarterback hurries.
With that in mind, defensive tackle twins Khalil and Carlos Davis each tallied three tackles for a loss as well as combining for 4.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries. Six of those came at the hands of Carlos.
While defensive linemen aren’t exactly expected to do the most damage in a 3-4 alignment, these numbers won’t be anywhere near acceptable for Chinander.
The good news is that true sophomore-to-be linebacker Ben Stille showed amazing potential in the nine games he played, leading the Huskers with 3.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss. Incoming four-star prospect Caleb Tannor may be raw, but he might start taking snaps away from Akinmoladun if the senior-to-be can’t turn things around as spring practice progresses.
3. Linebacker coverage
One area that was constantly abused by opposing offenses last season was the inability of Nebraska linebackers to cover receivers. Not only were they in the first year of learning a new 3-4 scheme, there also was plenty lost in translation between the players and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
Nebraska gave up 221 yards through the air per game, much of which was easily picked up by receivers able to get in space around Big Red linebackers. It may have been worse if the Huskers weren’t busy giving up 215 yards on the ground on average as well.
Players looked baffled if not like they were running in molasses and were absolutely embarrassed as a result.
Nebraska’s opponents grabbed explosive plays hand over fist. The 2017 version of the Blackshirts gave up an average of five plays of 15-plus yards per game and at least one play of 25-plus yards in each contest. To make matters worse, these big plays happened on first downs 54 percent of the time. Opponents didn’t have to be scared of playing in their own territory either as these chunks of yardage came most often between their own 21- and 39-yard lines (39 percent overall).
Diaco’s system produced some positive results, but it seemed to be communicated in an unnecessarily complicated fashion, so it’s hard to think that Chinander’s scheme won’t be a breath of fresh air.
4. The development of linebacker Will Honas
Honas is your traditional Big Ten linebacker. He keeps his head down, doesn’t talk much and loves to lay a lick. A comparison has already been made to former Nebraska linebacker Barrett Ruud, who will ironically be his position coach while at Nebraska, and is the person who ultimately helped seal his commitment.
Ranked as the No. 1 junior college linebacker during the 2018 cycle, Honas was heavily coveted by Iowa as well as Wisconsin, which made a late push for his commitment. Fortunately for Husker fans, he’ll be dealing damage to those Big Ten West foes on their team’s behalf instead.
If betting odds were released (which of course this writer and Athlon Sports would only do for entertainment purposes), Honas is easily in the driver’s seat for a starting spot at MIKE linebacker. Much like running back Greg Bell on the offensive side of the ball, Honas will inject an immediate wealth of athleticism and college-level conditioning.
He should become an overall fan favorite extremely quickly.
5. A secondary with swagger
We discussed how Chinander’s defenses at UCF dined on mistakes. For this to be the case at Nebraska, the new staff went out and added much-needed numbers and talent to the defensive backfield in the form of JUCO transfer Deontai Williams along with high school recruits Cam’ron Jones, C.J. Smith, Cam Taylor and Braxton Clark.
The Nebraska secondary doesn’t just need an upgrade in talent across the board or even depth, it needs to regain mental toughness and a swagger that can only be provided by defensive backs who love popping receivers in the mouth and live to influence turnovers.
Keep your eyes peeled for lollygaggers versus those who are more animated and bounce back from easily being burned a time or three. Enthusiasm is badly needed in this unit, even if it has to eventually be reined in somewhat.