LINCOLN — Oh, it’s quick, all right.
Nebraska’s new football practice style — as overseen by coach Scott Frost and strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval — used every square inch of the Hawks Championship Center field Tuesday morning, with players in positional clusters working fast in drills. It was a “competition day,” too, with coaches tracking offense vs. defense on every play.
Frost said the offense won by one play — the last play, in which the offense gained a first down.
“Far and away our best day as a team,” Frost said. “I saw great enthusiasm. … I’m seeing guys start to get it, guys start to understand our schemes on both sides and understand what we’re looking for from a pace standpoint and an effort standpoint.”
Reporters got their first glimpse — roughly a half-hour — and saw several things:
» The pre-warmup drills are not walkthroughs, at least not early in the spring. Instead, it’s fast-paced work that clearly gets the blood pumping. Quarterbacks, centers and running backs did basic handoff exchange work, but did so quickly, rep after rep, turning around and going the other way each time a rep had finished. Wide receivers did pad work, offensive guards and tackles practiced pass sets and defensive ends and outside linebackers used medicine balls for pursuit drills.
» The warmups themselves are fast-paced, with players grouped by position. They’re somewhat self-led, too, with Duval standing in the middle of the bunch and exhorting the last to finish (usually offensive and defensive linemen). They aren’t Hollywood warmups. They, too, got the blood pumping.
» After warmups, players amassed at midfield, clapped a bit, got a breakdown speech, and went right to competition. Offense vs. defense. Quarterback Noah Vedral — who has to sit out this season because he’s transferring from Central Florida — took the first snap of the session, but quarterbacks cycled in and out with every snap, as did every offensive and defensive unit. The defense probably got the better of the very first session, though Vedral hit receiver Stanley Morgan for a nice gain.
» Frost said he’s incorporated more hitting into his practices based on a suggestion from his former coach, Tom Osborne, who had live tackling portions of practice on Tuesday and Wednesday of each game week.
“We adopted that last year and actually went live to the ground even during the season,” Frost said. “And I think it made a difference for us. We need to be able to run and hit, and we need reps at it, so we’re going to take some live reps this spring. We’re going to try to keep the guys healthy, but we need to learn how to be physical.”
» The defense mixed and matched quite a bit — starters with third- and fourth-teamers — but it’s fairly clear that safeties Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed are in that top group, and one would expect that cornerback Lamar Jackson will be.
» Front seven battles seem much more fluid — don’t read too much in to who got snaps where — although, on first blush, junior college linebacker Will Honas fits right in.
» Several defenders didn’t practice in the part that reporters saw, including Mick Stoltenberg, Luke Gifford, Sedrick King, JoJo Domann and Carlos Davis.
» On offense, center Cole Conrad is back. He participated in full pads Tuesday.
» The top offensive line for Tuesday: left tackle Brenden Jaimes, left guard Jerald Foster, center Hunter Miller, right guard Tanner Farmer and right tackle Matt Farniok. Miller is a redshirt freshman walk-on from Cross County High School near Stromsburg. Note, too, that Conrad is coming off injury and Michael Decker, who may be the team’s starting center, is out for spring.
Frost said Miller has done a good job, but reporters shouldn’t read too much in to which linemen are working with other linemen — even if the four starters from last season were all on the same unit.
“Hunter’s one of the younger guys that I think is doing well, but there’s a lot of them,” Frost said. “We’re not really concerned with who’s running with which group right now. It’s all about getting reps, getting the whole team better from the bottom of the roster to the top. Sooner or later, that’ll pay off for us.”
» Frost is a recovering bad tackler.
» For the first five years of his NFL career, he said, he wasn’t very good at tackling. Toward the end, he said, he went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and learned the right way to do it.
So he’s “passionate” about teaching it now. The Huskers even had a technique meeting Monday night to cover the topic. Frost believes in aggressive, physical tackles. On the move. Through the ball carrier. Live with the missed tackles and learn from them for next time.
“If you’re going to run through a tackle and be aggressive, you’re going to miss some until you get good at it,” Frost said. “I want guys to continue to make the big hit, the splash play, the impact play. Instead of being afraid to make that play and coming to balance, coming to a stop and giving up yards. We’re going to run through tackles, and the technique’s going to come along as we keep working.”
Frost does not use a tackling consultant. He may not know the story from the past two seasons at Nebraska, but Husker fans do.
In 2016, NU paid Atavus $100,000 to use and teach the “Hawk” rugby tackling system to players. The consultant provided drills and data to NU coaches suggesting that the system had worked, and the Huskers tackled better.
In 2017, then-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco scrapped the system and said players didn’t even know how to tackle. Diaco also said the Hawk system was mandated by NU’s administration, not the coaching staff.
Mark Banker, Diaco’s predecessor as defensive coordinator, said Diaco was “full of it.” And so it went, a simmering argument between two defensive coordinators from a failed era of Husker football.
Frost said his staff will teach players how to tackle. He expressed surprise at the suggestion NU would use a tackling consultant.
“They pay us good money to coach,” Frost said. “If we don’t know what we’re doing, then they probably need a different coach.”