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Nebraska fires defensive coordinator Erik Chinander

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A week after former Nebraska coach Scott Frost was fired, Husker defensive coordinator Erik Chinander was out of a job too.

Changes within the football program continued to churn Sunday as the team announced it is moving on from the man who led the defense for the last four-plus seasons spanning 48 games. Interim coach Mickey Joseph has promoted special teams coordinator Bill Busch to fill the role with eight regular-season contests remaining for NU, which won’t play again until Indiana comes to Lincoln on Oct. 1.

“We appreciate Erik and the work and dedication he has given to our football program,” Joseph said in a release. “At this time, I feel that it is in the best interest of the Nebraska football program to take the leadership of the defense in another direction.”

The wheels came off the unit the last two weeks as Georgia Southern and Oklahoma combined to post 94 points and more than 1,200 yards in consecutive home Husker losses. Run defense in particular was nonexistent, with ball carriers darting through wide running lanes and shedding tackle after tackle when there was contact. The school opponent record for yards allowed per game (656 by Oklahoma in 1956) was in danger each time.

Nebraska ranks at or near the bottom of the Big Ten in just about every major defensive statistic. It sits 128th out of 131 FBS teams in total defense (514 yards allowed per game), 116th in yards per play allowed (6.33) and 114th in scoring defense (35.5 points allowed per game). The unit has created five takeaways through four games — three fumbles recovered and two interceptions, both by safety Marques Buford against North Dakota — a number that ranks 48th nationally with the benefit of a week-zero game.

Asked after Saturday’s 49-14 loss to OU if there would be any changes above the player level, Joseph was noncommittal. That changed less than 24 hours later.

“I can’t see that right now,” Joseph said. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to see that tomorrow, but I can’t see that right now.”

Busch — whom Frost hired in January to rebuild a disastrous special teams corps — has spent most of his career coaching the back levels of defenses. He was defensive coordinator at Utah State from 2009-12 and a defensive quality control analyst at Ohio State in 2015. He also was co-defensive coordinator at Rutgers in 2017 and at Northern Arizona in 1996. Busch and Joseph coached together at LSU from 2018-2020, winning a national championship as part of the Tigers’ 2019 squad.

He takes over for the man many called “Coach Chins,” a former Iowa offensive lineman who appeared at times last season to grow into the challenge of stopping Big Ten offenses after following Frost from UCF. The 2021 Blackshirts – featuring multiple fifth- and sixth-year defenders including nickel JoJo Domann and defensive backs Cam Taylor-Britt and Marquel Dismuke along with veteran D-linemen like Ben Stille and Damion Daniels — ended 47th in total defense at 366 yards allowed per game. They held Michigan State without a first down in the second half and stymied multiple high-caliber backs while becoming the unit that mostly kept Nebraska close in nine single-digit losses.

Nebraska interim head coach Mickey Joseph speaks during a news conference after losing to Oklahoma, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, at Memorial Stadium.

But three new starters in the secondary, an almost complete reset at defensive line and an injury to co-captain inside linebacker Nick Henrich this season were too much to overcome. Tackling, fundamentals and — eventually — camaraderie questions came into play just a third of the way into the season.

Nebraska has already lost a 2023 recruit in the wake of the coordinator change as four-star edge rusher Cameron Lenhardt of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, announced his decommitment Sunday afternoon. Lenhardt pledged Aug. 25.

The adjustment for Chinander wasn’t smooth going from the run-and-gun AAC to the brutish, clock-consuming offenses of the Big Ten. Taking chances to force stops and takeaways worked at UCF paired with the nation’s top scoring offense, but didn’t translate at Nebraska as defenders wore down against in-game totals of more than 80 snaps. Of the 23 times in Husker history a foe has topped 500 yards of offense, eight came under Chinander’s watch including three in four games this fall.

“If I was worried about self-promoting me, then you'd leave this deal and you'd go to a team that's going to run the ball 50 times," Chinander said in December 2017 while at UCF. “But I love the exciting pace of our game. I love Coach Frost. I love the offense. I love being in some shootouts sometimes.”

Nebraska employed a 3-4 defense in Chinander’s first three seasons before shifting to more of a “multiple” look with a mix of three- and four-man fronts. Recruiting bigger, longer-armed defenders with better tackling radiuses became more of a priority for the defensive staff.

The DC embraced the Blackshirts tradition from the start — “it means more to me than putting out on social media,” he said in November 2020. He was popular among players and the team rallied around him when his father, Gene, died in a car accident last October. He was also engaging and thoughtful during interviews, never one to shy away from a colorful metaphor.

“A piece of college coaching that I love is developing kids into men,” Chinander said before last season. “Obviously it’s not all bubble gum and lollipops out there. Sometimes I lose it a little bit and have to get after people. But I think those kids understand I love ‘em. I love ‘em dearly, I love ‘em like my own.”

The relationships too often didn’t manifest in football production. Even at its best the defense rarely forced game-changing turnovers. It caused 66 in 48 games — 27 fumbles and 39 interceptions — while never ranking higher than 34th nationally in takeaways. It was 104th last season with just 13.

The challenges were more basic than that of late. Joseph removed Blackshirts from the team last week in an effort to “start over” with him taking the interim role. He said Saturday that individual work and more tackling would be a bigger priority and replace the “thud” style — hitting ball carriers and slowing them down without bringing them to the ground — that the Huskers regularly employed under Frost and Chinander.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” safety Myles Farmer said Saturday. “We’ve been tagging off for four years.”

So Nebraska moves on with a new defensive coordinator for the first time since Bob Diaco departed with the rest of Mike Riley’s staff in 2017. Chinander was making $850,000 this year and set to do the same next season — he was under contract through Dec. 31, 2023.

“I gotta accept responsibility for it and I have,” Joseph said of the Saturday loss. “We’re going to get better next week. We’ve got eight games left. We’re going to get ready to win some games.”

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