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Colorado vs. Nebraska, 9/8/18

Kenny Wilhite, Nebraska's director of high school relations, talks with defensive coordinator Erik Chinander (right) during pregame preparations for Colorado on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

Erik Chinander clearly thrives on challenges.

Another coach's headache just might be his reason to rise every morning.

"Nothing to me that's easy is interesting," he says. "It needs to be hard."

His actions back his words. When Scott Frost asked him to become Central Florida's defensive coordinator in 2016 — Chinander's first-ever go-round as a DC — the Knights were coming off an 0-12 season. You know how that story turned out.

As Nebraska's first-year defensive coordinator, the 38-year-old Chinander remains in the early stages of his life as a coordinator. Yet he enthusiastically leaped head-first into the Big Ten, the nation's best coaching conference. That qualifies as a difficult challenge.

Especially at a school that in 2017 ranked last among Big Ten teams in total defense.

"I knew coming here — they were 4-8 last year — this ain't going to be easy," Chinander said this week. "There ain't no way. But taking over Alabama's defense, they'd probably call me a great defensive coordinator because I'd have really great players. That's OK. But it's not all that much fun for me.

"This is fun. Get these kids to play hard. Get these kids to believe in themselves and really do it."

It looked fun last week against Colorado, at least until the very end, when CU receiver Laviska Shenault's final gut-punch reception went for a touchdown with 66 seconds remaining, giving the Buffaloes a 33-28 triumph in Lincoln.

Yeah, the loss stung Chinander. But it was a somewhat strange day on Stadium Drive, a day of mixed emotions. After all, his defense swarmed to the ball most of the afternoon, producing seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss, nearly a third of Nebraska's TFL total for the entire 2017 season. Husker fans were thrilled with the effort. Chinander's debut was filled with promise.

But it's not about him, he says. That's a recurring theme with Frost's coaching staff. It's about the players. Chinander wants them to have an absolute ball on autumn Saturdays.

"I'm going to let the guys play," he said. "I know I've trained them right. They've trained right. They know the game plan, I know the game plan. I've got to call it and they have to execute it. But once the game starts, it's their time."

He said it was gratifying seeing the defenders' energy level.

"To ask those kids to play harder than they've ever played and then they go out and do it," he said, his voice trailing.

"It hurts me to have to stand in front of them and say, 'You played as hard as we asked you to play and we couldn't win last week.' Obviously, I know the mistakes that were made. But it hurts to watch them play that hard and not win."

On the other hand, "Anybody watching the game could see how hard those kids played, especially being down 14-0," he said.

Chinander preaches aggression. Then again, how many defensive coordinators don't preach it? It's just that the good ones consistently draw aggression out of their players.

We're getting a feel for how Chinander does it. Against Colorado, Nebraska often made it look like it was sending extra pass rushers but ended up sending the standard three or four. The Buffaloes, however, didn't always know from where they were coming. 

"Sometimes it's one inside linebacker coming up the middle," Chinander said. "He's our fourth rusher. Thing is, everybody rushes four."

But in obvious passing situations, Chinander often had six defenders at the line of scrimmage. He sent anywhere from three to six of them barrelling toward the quarterback. How many depended on the protection, he said.

Or sometimes there will be four defenders at the line of scrimmage and the blitzers "will come from outer space," he said. If the quarterback's slightly confused, well, the "wizard" — Chinander's defenders have been known to call him that — did his job.

"My job is to create the best environment for the kids to be successful and then get the hell out of the way," Chinander said as Nebraska prepared for Saturday's home game against Troy (1-1).

If someday Chinander has a top-10 defense at Nebraska, perhaps he'll seek a challenge elsewhere.

Relax, I'm kidding. The fun's just starting. Tell me last week's game wasn't fun. Tell me you didn't walk away optimistic.

"You're always going to get a new group of players every year, so then the challenge becomes something else," Chinander said.

Something else to get the fire going. With Chinander, the fire is evident. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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