LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said he needs more time to get his defense up and running properly and that his players’ tackling skills were so poor at the start of spring practice that “to say alarming would be an understatement.”
With the Cornhuskers 4-5 and coach Mike Riley on the hot seat, Diaco addressed reporters for more than 20 minutes after practice Tuesday night to lay out the challenges he’s faced.
Riley hired Diaco in January to replace Mark Banker and change the defense’s base alignment from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Through nine games, the Huskers have posted worse defensive numbers than in 2016. They rank 73rd in total defense, 81st in rushing defense and 91st in scoring defense.
Diaco said the process of getting players to understand and properly execute their roles in the defense takes at least a year under normal circumstances.
“We are going to create a great defense. We are going to create one of the best defenses,” Diaco said. “And there is no doubt about that. We’re going to continue to add personnel, but the personnel that’s on the defensive unit that’s coming back will be just fine to accomplish that. They’re bright-eyed, they’re bushy-tailed, they’re smart. They want to do this. In some instances they don’t know how.”
Progress has occurred, albeit slowly, Diaco said. One of the hindrances has been the team’s tackling skills.
The previous defensive staff began teaching rugby-style tackling, which is touted as a safer method that reduces the risk of the defender’s head contacting with the ball-carrier’s body.
“The tackling degenerated,” Diaco said. “You think about a player showing up here who is a really great tackler and then becomes a worse tackler? That doesn’t make any sense. So I had no idea until we went to our tackling drill on the first full-padded practice of spring football and found that the players were spectacularly frustrated during the drill.”
Diaco said the players last spring were willing, tough and talented enough to tackle properly but didn’t fundamentally know how to do it - “at all,” he said.
Diaco said he isn’t sure he knows what rugby-style tackling is supposed to look like.
“I just know when I went to that drill, to say alarming would be an understatement,” he said. “I could feel it on the players. My heart went out to them. They were so incredibly frustrated in that moment in the spring. Since then, they’ve come light years in becoming functional tacklers.”
Diaco said the defense was set back by the July death of Bob Elliott, who had been hired as safeties coach before spring practice. The Huskers hired Scott Booker as a special teams consultant in March and made him safeties coach after Elliott’s death. Donta Williams joined the staff in December as cornerbacks coach.
“Strong coaches, strong teachers, great guys, highly competitive and smart,” Diaco said. “We just need time together.”
Diaco also tried to clarify an awkward comment he made after the 31-24 overtime loss to Northwestern on Saturday. After the game, he said, “There’s no reasonable reason, considering where the defensive program was at, to believe that they should be able to do everything that needs to be done in the game, to win the game.”
He said Tuesday that he meant the defense couldn’t be expected to shut down a team like Northwestern when there were so many penalties on the defense and special teams and the offense turned over the ball three times.
Diaco said he wants to keep building what he started.
“I don’t want to be anywhere else,” he said. “I love this place, I love the players, I love the people, I love the university. I love how important football is to everyone. I love that, even though sometimes it feels a little attacking. I wouldn’t have it any other way, personally, and I never want to be anywhere else doing anything other than trying to win championships here and play great defense.”
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