‘We’re about where we should be’: At spring’s midpoints, Husker coordinators see progress

Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander talks with players during a spring football practice April 7 at Hawks Championship Center.

Erik Chinander is very much in workmanlike mode as Nebraska hits the second half of spring football.

The Husker defensive coordinator returns 10 players from the 2020 season finale to a group that can claim depth and talent at all three levels.

Coach Scott Frost said Monday that NU might be “vanilla” when the program opens up a practice to as many as 4,000 spectators Saturday at Memorial Stadium so as not to give much away. Chinander on Wednesday said he hasn’t given it a moment of thought.

“Yeah, I don’t really care who’s at practice,” he said. “I just want to get better. I don’t plan on hiding stuff.”

A couple of caveats: First, the fourth-year coordinator allowed that, yes, it will be very cool to have fans in the stands for the first time in more than a year, even if it’s just to watch a normal ol’ spring practice session.

“But, with that being said, we’re not in the trick ’em phase of football right now,” Chinander added. “We need to line up and play what we play. Do we pressure a few times and throw a few things in the mix to keep the offense honest? Absolutely. So do they. But we’re not going to sit here and script a different script just because it’s an open practice.”

Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick played coy on the potential that junior defensive back Cam Taylor-Britt could have a limited role or be a special package player on the offensive side of the ball, but he, curiously, knew a bit about the former quarterback’s arm strength, saying Wednesday, “He can definitely throw. We’ve messed around with a couple things, but I’ve got to keep those secret.”

So, Saturday might not feature Taylor-Britt lining up in the backfield or the latest ideas in the top-secret folder. But Lubick, like Chinander, said that’s not really the point of this time of year in the first place.

“Spring is a great time to evaluate guys and see what they can do well and try to fit your system around what guys can do well,” Lubick said. “That’s what we’re doing, especially with some of our new guys at really all positions. What does this guy do well and then kind of tailor that. At the same time, too, you want to hone in and improve on the things we thought we did well and then always in the offseason we kind of go and study other football teams and there might be a wrinkle here and there that we think can make us better. If we find something we think can enhance our style of play, we’ll use it, and spring is a good time to experiment with that.

“At the end of the day, our whole emphasis with spring football is to get fundamentally better as a football team, better blockers, better tacklers and play hard. To do that as a coach, sometimes you’ve got to fight putting in a whole bunch of stuff and let your guys execute and play.”

Both coordinators on Wednesday said they are encouraged by the progress on their respective sides of the ball, though progress looks different on a veteran defense than it does on an offense that’s trying to break through after a poor overall showing in 2020.

“Right now I feel like we’ve got the right guys on the bus, now it’s just figuring out what seat they need to be in,” Chinander said. “We’re changing those groups up and it’s been really good to see a lot of young guys get a lot of reps, especially those guys on the back end.”

Chinander, though, added a word of caution about thinking the spring was only about developing inexperienced players.

“You guys have watched us,” he said. “We won three games last year, so everyone needs reps.”

On offense, it’s more about trying to get the most improvement out of a host of either new players or players who are attempting to make a big jump from their first year to their second as full-time players. Consider the list of players, across age groups, who fall in that group: tight end Travis Vokolek, offensive linemen Turner Corcoran, Bryce Benhart and Ethan Piper (plus perhaps whoever wins the other guard job) and every wide receiver except for newcomer Samori Toure.

“Now those guys are getting a lot more confident, they understand the offense and they can play faster and make plays,” said Lubick, who was talking about his receiver group specifically, but could have said the same about any of the others.

Overall, the coordinators on Wednesday didn’t have groundbreaking news to share, which means things are mostly proceeding along normally in the middle of spring ball.

“I think we’re getting close. Today was the first red zone day, so we got some of that part of the install done,” Chinander said. “Most of the base install is in, so now just fine-tuning things and getting some young guys a lot of reps. Obviously the older guys, especially the sixth-year guys that have come back, they have a lot of experience in the system, so it’s important for those young guys to get reps. I think the way we’ve got practice structured, those guys are getting a lot of work. I also want to see some guys with different groups, moving some of the 1s around and 2s around and just seeing how guys work together.

“We’re getting there. We’re about where we should be.”