If Nebraska is to take a sizable step forward defensively in 2019, its veteran defensive line group is going to have to be one of the drivers for change.
The Huskers’ defense has allowed 31.2 and 36.4 points per game the past two seasons — with a coaching staff change in between — and, though improvement showed in some areas in 2018 under defensive coordinator Erik Chinander and company, some of the numbers still were not pretty.
Nebraska gave up 195.8 rushing yards per game, 12th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten, and 5.0 per carry. Only Illinois gave up more than NU’s 29 rushing touchdowns allowed. The Huskers more than doubled their 2017 sack total to 25 in 2018 and were more disruptive overall, but also withered for long stretches against the run against division foes like Wisconsin, Iowa and even Illinois.
None of these metrics, of course, are the sole province of the defensive line. But first-year assistant Tony Tuioti says he’s seen his guys respond to the challenge so far.
“It’s just expectations,” he said Wednesday. “I think each and every day when these guys understand what it means to be a Blackshirt, there’s an expectation that comes along with that, and we’ve got to hold ourselves accountable to it. I say that all the time to the players is, ‘What are we willing to tolerate of each other?' If we’re willing to tolerate underperforming, then we’re not going to get where we want to be at. Blackshirt has to mean something. Our defensive line code has to mean something.
“Each and every day we’ve got to come out and perform to that. It’s not a given. It’s something that we expect out of each other and we hold each other accountable to it.”
If limited snippets of spring ball are good for anything, it’s broad-stroke impressions. At a relative glance, several of NU’s defensive linemen appear to have had productive winters under the guidance of head strength coach Zach Duval and his staff. Ben Stille said he’s up to 288 pounds, intimating he played up front last year at less than 280.
“I think a big emphasis for us for the off-season is getting bigger,” he said earlier this month. “Just the body change, getting bigger, being able to play harder and just more knock-back is definitely something that is big for us up front.”
Defensive linemen in a 3-4 system aren't always going to put up huge numbers, but NU's in 2018 were modest. Stille led the group with five sacks, while Khalil Davis paced the linemen with eight tackles for loss.
Stille and Davis are part of the core along with Khalil's twin brother Carlos, senior graduate transfer Darrion Daniels and sophomore Damion Daniels. Fellow seniors DaiShon Neal and Vaha Vainuku mean there’s plenty of experience in the group.
“There’s just a ton of guys,” Chinander said. “I really like the violence they’re playing with up front, and they’re really running to the football right now. It’s the same thing with those guys, right? Last year it was getting used to the calls, the different fronts, what mode am I in? Am I in two-gap? Am I in one-gap? Am I penetrating up the field? Am I trying to build a wall? Is it time to rush the passer based on the call? What is the call telling me to do? Those guys are kind of in and out with ease right now in the system.
“Those guys have been pretty impressive so far.”
It goes without saying that there’s a difference between causing disruption in spring ball and slowing down the likes of Wisconsin’s Doak Walker Award-winning running back Jonathan Taylor, but the positive March vibes can also be put in simple terms: NU’s defensive line must be better in 2019 than it was in 2018, so any talk of progress is a step in the right direction.
“I’m just proud that each and every guy is taking pride in trying to contribute to the team in any way possible,” Tuioti said. “If we have those type of attitudes and we’re building the culture the right way, then when it comes to game day, it’s going to be what it is. We’re not going to be a different group come game day. We’re the same way we are in practice, the same way we’re going to be in a game.”