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Nebraska football wants to have nation’s top defense

Nebraska defensive linemen prepare for a drill at practice last week at Hawks Championship Center.

There’s nothing like a competition to brighten the mood during a Nebraska football practice.

The Huskers have been split into three competition teams  the Bugeaters, Old Gold Knights and Rattlesnake Boys  which go offense vs. defense across three practice fields during the spring.

The action on any given day can be fast-paced and intense for any player, let alone for the Nebraska defenders who face an offense then rotate fields and go against an entirely new one. The defense does return plenty of veteran starters and experienced players to its ranks, but the three-team setup spreads those leaders across the fields.

“For the players, you really get a chance to see who knows what they’re doing and who doesn’t,” defensive coordinator Tony White said. “You may have a guy who’s played 1,000 snaps in with a freshman or a first-year guy who may not know what to do, so there’s got to be some extra communication there. We’re really keen on watching who can communicate the right way and who knows what they’re supposed to be doing.”

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It’s also a challenge for the coaches, according to White, to make sure they’re on the same page as three different units try to master their scheme. But with more reps to go around, Nebraska coaches are learning plenty about the impact players they have this season.

Particularly after a 2023 season in which Nebraska had one of the nation’s best rush and scoring defenses, expectations are high again this year. While White has reminded his players that this specific team hasn’t accomplished anything just yet, the entire NU defense has a long-term goal in mind.

“That’s the goal, we want to be the No. 1 defense in the country, but all that is words until guys adopt it and they live it every day,” White said.

Through the spring practice competition, the Huskers have taken a step toward that goal. While one-on-one, seven-on-seven and nine-on-seven drills all are commonplace during Nebraska practices, the true 11-on-11 scenarios cause players to rise to the occasion.

“It turns practice from just being, ‘Oh, we’re doing another team period,’ to like, ‘All right, let’s go win this team period,’” defensive lineman Nash Hutmacher said. “It makes practice a lot more fun.”

Sophomore defensive lineman Cam Lenhardt said that on a team filled with competitive individuals, the practice setup “definitely brings that juice out.”

The growth provided by practice competition may not differ along the levels of the defense, but their takeaways from each individual rep do. Up front, the defensive linemen strive to win the battle of physicality against offensive line units who are also trying to impose their will and win the rep.

“Right now our offensive and defensive line are doing a great job working together, they’re getting after each other and we’re getting tougher on both sides of the ball,” defensive line coach Terrance Knighton said.

The linebacker unit has a focus on communication with veterans not only having to worry about the play call and their positioning, but that of their teammates as well. Having players get used to the pressure of those situations is a goal, White said.

In the secondary, many players are moving spots and trying new roles to determine their best fit within the system.

In that regard, the spring setup has allowed Nebraska to experiment and rotate positions at a greater frequency than before. The true value of those efforts won’t be known until the fall, but White already feels that the Nebraska defense is growing because of it.

“Every day it’s like gameday around here when we’re practicing (because) it’s that intense, it’s that physical,” White said. “The standard is not what it was last year.”

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