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Learning to Play in the Secondary

One of the many things that has frustrated Husker fans in recent years has been the play of the Husker secondary. After the 2003 season where the Huskers led college football with 32 interceptions (eight more than the #2 team), secondary play dropped off sharply from there.  Former secondary coach Phil Elmassian remarked after the 2004 season that it was the "worst secondary" play he'd ever been associated with.  Since then, Husker fans have not only been puzzled by inconsistent, if not outright horrible, play and by the personnel on the field.  Whether it was Blake Tiedtke, Cortney Grixby, Matt O'Holloran, or Shane Thorell, fans wondered why seemingly more talented, bigger, faster athletes weren't on the field.

There's an element to the game that fans sometimes dismiss because it' the most difficult part of the game to evaluate:  the mental side of the game.  It's being able to anticipate where the offense is going as the play develops.  It's about knowing where your teammates are, and being able to depend on them to back you up if you take a chance.

It's perhaps one of the things that Nebraska lost in the 2004 coaching change and is proving to be one of the more difficult challenges for Bo Pelini and Marvin Sanders to resolve.  That "worst secondary" quote from Elmassian is an eye-opener, as we all know that secondary was not lacking in talent.  Fabian Washington, Josh Bullocks, and Daniel Bullocks were all top-40 NFL draft picks; Elmassian arguably had Nebraska's most talented secondary ever.  But pure physical talent doesn't mean success - especially combined with a lack of instruction in a poor scheme.

Last year, when Marvin Sanders returned to take over the secondary, I anticipated a huge improvement in the Husker secondary based on his prior track record.  And while play improved, it was no where near the improvement I anticipated.  Sanders alluded to it midway through last season, when he mentioned that some players needed to "really commit to the scheme." As the season went on, we saw stretches where the entire defense played better, but every so often, the defense would give up a huge play on a defensive breakdown, usually in the secondary.

Sanders challenged his players this offseason to learn from their mistakes by diagraming and documenting every play from last season.  The goal: get them to understand not only what they were doing wrong, but to understand what the defense is supposed to do.  Ultimately it gets them in a position to react instinctively rather than thinking on the field.

You'll learn more from one episode of Sesame Street with this Elmo than you would from four years under the previous Nebraska coaching staff and that other Elmo.

I think this helps explain why some personnel decisions were made in recent years; without any solid instruction by the previous coaching staff, players have been left to depend on their own instincts and abilities.  It created an opening for walkons who were able to pick up the schemes on their own, and sentenced players to the bench if they tried to rely only on talent and practice.  That's changing.  Anthony West gave the World-Herald a few examples of the mental approach the secondary is being asked to take:
  • How does the quarterback come out on his three-set drop?
  • What differences does a quarterback have when he pumps to the left versus the right? 
  • What types of routes does a receiver run when lined up in the slot? 
  • What routes does that receiver run when he has his right foot back while he’s set at the line of scrimmage?

We'll see how this year's secondary looks this season, but it shouldn't be a surprise to anybody if this year's secondary looks more like the 2003 group than the 2007 group.  That's not to say I expect the defense to be a top-fifteen group...just that I expect this defense to be closer to the top than the bottom.  Fewer mistakes leads to confidence and belief.  Bo Pelini once said that "success starts with effort, not scheme"; confidence is a major factor of that effort.