Leading the Blackshirts is no picnic under the best of circumstances.
Circumstances this spring will challenge Erik Chinander.
His friend and colleague, Jovan Dewitt, has a form of throat cancer. As a result, Chinander helps Dewitt coach the Nebraska outside linebackers, doing so with a heavy heart.
Of course, outside linebackers are an extension of the defensive line. Along those lines, you may have heard Nebraska has a brand new defensive line coach, Tony Tuioti, who replaced Mike Dawson, another coach to whom Chinander is close. They’ll remain close even as Dawson coaches OLBs with the New York Giants.
Meanwhile, Tuioti learns on the run, with Chinander doing much of the teaching as Nebraska’s second-year defensive coordinator.
You don’t have to be Tony Romo to understand Nebraska needs to improve on defense, especially up front. Injecting fire into the pass rush is perhaps the top priority. Outside linebackers play a lead role in that regard. Slowing down run games also has to be an emphasis. All aboard for that task.
The Blackshirts can’t afford to take a step back this spring, regardless of circumstances.
“We consider all of our coaches and all of our players as family, and anytime a family member has a difficulty or you lose a family member, it certainly causes a little stress,” Chinander says. “But when you accept the role as a leader, you understand that the kids need to see you in a certain demeanor. I can’t be stressed. I’ve got to help them through the situation.
“It’s like when you become a dad. It ain’t about me anymore. It’s about my kids, it’s about our players, it’s about our coaches. I don’t get to be stressed. I need to help relieve the stress off everybody else. When you accept a leadership position, that’s just life.”
That sort of strength and selflessness perhaps helps explain why Nebraska head coach Scott Frost made Chinander his defensive coordinator at Central Florida in 2016. They previously coached together at Northern Iowa and Oregon. Their bond is strong. The bond throughout the entire Husker staff is strong. Chinander had that chemistry in mind last month as he evaluated Tuioti, who arrived from Cal.
Chinander felt it was integral that Tuioti fit in well with Dewitt, secondary coach Travis Fisher and inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud.
“I think it’s huge,” Chinander said of staff chemistry. “The last three or four years, we’ve had a really good thing going, and trust is a huge thing.”
He makes a convincing case. He emphasizes the importance of Nebraska’s assistants fully understanding and carrying out the vision that Frost establishes for the program as a whole.
As for the defense, “When we sit in that meeting room, whether it’s my idea or Tony’s idea or Travis’ idea or Barrett’s or Jovan’s -- when we leave that room, it’s our idea,” Chinander said. “You have to trust that everyone’s going to carry out that vision. I think Tony’s a guy who fits in with our group, fits in with the way we want players treated, with the way we want the other coaches treated, the way we want media and people outside of our immediate cocoon treated.”
What’s more, “Tony will bring some new things. They were really good on defense at Cal, which runs a system similar to ours. So Tony’s got some things that can probably help our scheme, some different techniques or maybe some different adjustments. But he’s kind of learning what we do, and adding as much as he can.”
I like Chinander’s demeanor. He’s serious without being brusque. With media, he’s patient without being soft. His plain talk resonates well with Husker fans. But his job is difficult. He inherited a unit that struggled mightily in 2017. It was a mess, really. A soft and gooey mess. You saw improvement last season, but the Blackshirts often got pushed around, especially by power running teams like Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. Even Illinois came to Lincoln and rushed for 383 yards (7.9 per carry).
Chinander needs more time to accumulate talent and depth. Because Frost’s offense operates at such a rapid pace, Chinander’s unit needs to be ready for a lot of opponent possessions. So Chinander ideally wants a first and second string that are basically interchangeable -- with little drop-off. He needs more size and length throughout the defense. Talent acquisition often takes time.
To win at a high level, a lot has to fall into place. Life sometimes tosses in unforeseen challenges. In the case of Dewitt, life tossed in something much larger than football. Meanwhile, a rabid fan base hungers for a Blackshirt unit that resembles its halcyon days in the 1990s.
No pressure, coach Chins.
Just get that new line coach up to speed. And coach up those outside linebackers.
“Does it cause me a little stress? Probably,” Chinander said. “But I don’t get to think about that anymore.”
Spoken with the selflessness of a leader.