Erik Chinander can see it, and if he doesn't trust his own eyes he doesn't have to look far for confirmation of his feelings.
Nebraska's defense is bigger -- and stronger -- and physically faster than it was even in the spring. A second summer in the weight room has continued to transform the Huskers' roster. The Blackshirts are further along mentally, too. Install has gone easier. Focus is better.
But everybody is bigger and stronger and faster and more focused this time of year, right?
"Ask Coach (Jovan) Dewitt about that, even. Me and him talked and I said 'what do you think? I think we're better.' And he said 'I think we're a lot better,'" Chinander said of a recent conversation with NU's outside linebackers coach. "When you're not around it for four months and then you jump back in, it just looks different. So I'll take his word for it."
Dewitt of course was away from the team for several months as he battled throat cancer. Chinander has been closer, although coaches aren't allowed much contact with their players during the summer months.
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But now, four practices into fall camp, he's noticed physical differences across the board.
"I think those guys up front are really big and really strong. One guy I think who's playing well right now is (linebacker) Collin Miller. All the guys. The defensive backs look huge for defensive backs," Chinander said. "So I like where we're at."
The physical improvements have, at least in the first few days of practice, have come out on the field. Chinander wants his defense to cause havoc and create turnovers. And while guys such as Adrian Martinez and Wan'Dale Robinson have given the Blackshirts some problems early on, the defense is winning more than it isn't. That's good for the players on NU's offense, who get the ball back in their hands that much quicker.
"Personally, being four days in, I think we're way ahead (of last year in forcing turnovers). Today for instance, I think we grabbed three or four interceptions and stripped a couple (fumbles) out," Chinander said. "To me when it happens in practice — what happens in practice shows up on Saturday. And right now it’s happening in practice. Is it going to continue? That’s my challenge to them. If it can continue, then I think we’re going to be a really good turnover unit and we can get back to where I want to be as a defensive coordinator."
A byproduct of that success, or perhaps vice versa, has been improved focus in the less-fun parts of being a college football player. Meetings are more purposeful. Walk-throughs are sharper. Again, most teams would probably say the same this time of year. But the man in charge of rebuilding Nebraska's defense has seen improvement.
"To me the hardest thing in football, as a player, is to dial in, in walk-throughs and teaching periods and meetings. And right now I haven’t see wandering eyes and poking my buddy and giggling in the back, that doesn’t happen anymore," Chinander said. "Guys are locked in, guys are going to learn, guys know this is competition — there’s young guys in here to take my job, and I better stay locked in. Young guys know, I want to take that job, I need to be locked in about my reps. So I think the focus is really good."
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