Scott Frost hopes a more normal spring allows Huskers to ‘really dial in’ on lingering flaw

Nebraska head coach Scott Frost (right) watches the work on the field with Huskers defensive coordinator Erik Chinander during the Friday Night Lights event at Memorial Stadium in 2018.

Erik Chinander loves this time of year.

Naturally, the Nebraska defensive coordinator was excited to get back on the field with his players when the Huskers formally began spring practices Tuesday. After all, it’s been more than three months since NU beat Rutgers in New Jersey to finish 3-5 in a pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Chinander has as much reason for excitement as anybody, considering he has nine starters back and a wealth of experience at all three levels of his defense. This time of year, though, when urgency ramps up another notch (especially in a program that’s 12-20 in the past three seasons) but games remain months off in the distance, brings with it a unique opportunity to focus on both competition and also development. 

“I love spring football because it’s a great opportunity to work with … newer faces, guys who might have been here last year and redshirted and/or were injured or didn’t get a lot of reps,” Chinander said Monday. “I love spring football and being able to work with those guys and just watch those guys get better every day.

“Sometimes when you’re in the middle of the season and you’re game-planning for an opponent and getting the first one or two groups ready, sometimes there’s not a ton of time that can be spent with those younger guys, but we all know those younger guys are going to be the foundation of what we’ve got to build for the future, so it’s great in the spring to be able to get hands-on with those guys and watch them get meaningful reps.”

Coach Scott Frost said Monday that he wants the focus of the spring trained on fundamentals.

Not only did Frost think the helter-skelter nature of the past year took away from the ability to fine-tune in that department, it clearly cost Nebraska in myriad ways on the field. Procedure penalties and holding calls marred offensive drives. Turnovers prevented any chance of a comeback from a slow start against Illinois and could have done the same in the first half against Rutgers. A 5-yard rush might be a long touchdown if the right perimeter defender gets blocked. A string of stingy run defense goes for naught if one assignment on a fourth-and-1 gets busted.

And special teams. Special teams is all about details. NU’s shortcomings in that department showed up in both small and glaring ways.

Details often make the difference in close games, and Nebraska under Frost is 5-12 in games decided by one possession.

“I want to really dial in on fundamentals this year,” Frost said. “When you talk about getting ready for a season without a spring ball and a fall camp, some of the improvements that we needed to make on some of the basic things are tougher to do when you’re getting a team ready to play Week 1 with a broken fall camp. We’re really going to focus on being a physical team, on fundamentals up front, fundamentals in the run game, on defense. I think if we get really good at those things, then our base things will work a little bit better and then we can get more creative with the others.

“If we can lean on those things, then we’ll be able to make some plays with some other creative things.”

Considering the way spring ball was cut short after just two practices in 2020, NU has somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 players who are going through the process for essentially the first time.

Take wide receiver Oliver Martin as one example from that group. The former four-star recruit transferred to Nebraska as a walk-on last summer and didn’t gain immediate eligibility until midway through the season. He essentially jumped in with little to no preparation, playing in five games, starting the last four and finishing with five catches for 63 yards. 

“We threw him in the line of fire and he did a good job and started the last couple of games for us, but it was hard for him because he never really understood the base of the offense and the language,” Nebraska offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said. “It wasn’t his fault, it was just the situation he was in. He’s always had great athletic ability, we knew that. I actually recruited him out of high school when I was at Oregon. But now he’s taken it a step further because he understands the offense. He knows what route to run, knows who to block. …

“Now that he’s playing with some confidence and knows what he’s doing, you can actually see his athletic ability coming through and it’s been impressive.”

Each of the players going through spring ball for the first time — and many others for that matter — begin these coming weeks with a chance to take steps forward. 

So, that’s the quest for Nebraska this spring. The winter, Frost said, was about strength training and also building camaraderie. Now, on-field development and fundamentals.

“We talked to our guys about breaking the year up into four parts and the first one is over, winter conditioning is over,” Frost said.