September 3, 2008

NU secondary looking to improve communication

Ask any member of Nebraska's secondary or defensive coaching staff, and they'll all give you the same answer to explain Western Michigan's success in the passing game on Saturday.

They're not using it as an excuse. The problem was just that easy to identify.

A lack of communication, both on the field and from the sideline, was the primary reason for the Broncos' ability to rack up nearly 350 passing yards and two touchdowns against the Huskers' secondary.

In the defense's mind, WMU's success had nothing to do with it beating the Huskers' in coverage. It was simply the defense shooting itself in the foot.

"It was a lot of communication errors on our part," junior safety Larry Asante said. "They didn't come out and really do anything that we hadn't seen. They weren't a more physical team. They weren't better than us. It was none of that. It was communication. But there's no excuse, we have to do better than that. That's something we're working on this week to get it all corrected.

"I'm not concerned. It's just little things. If they would've came out and just lined up in I-formation and just ran up the middle and rush for like 250 yards, that's concerning. But they didn't do that. Basically they just came out and tried to trick us."

What Asante means by the Broncos trying to "trick" the Huskers was how their offense lined up before each play. Rather than huddle up on the field and send in personnel from the sideline, Asante said Western Michigan's offense would huddle on the sideline to disguise any substitutions, then run onto the field directly into its offensive set.

As a result, the Huskers had only a few seconds to recognize the play, get their defensive signals in from the sideline and communicate with each other to make sure everyone was on the same page.

Combine that with the fact that four of Nebraska's top five defensive backs were making their first start on Saturday, and it's easy to see why communication breakdowns came early and often.

"It's a few things," defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders said. "One, it's the first game. You always got to kind of work the kinks out of the system. You expect a little of that going on. Also, we had four out five guys back there that this was their first playing experience. It's not an excuse, but we got to get better in that."

Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said the problem wasn't getting the calls signaled in from the sideline, but getting all the players to know the plays and adjust accordingly before the snap.

In a way to attempt to improve communication within the secondary, Sanders said the Huskers have instituted a new strategy during film sessions this season. In the strategy, Sanders will sit across the room from his players while watching film of opposing offenses in real time and signal in plays before the snap just like he would in actual games.

The players then have to identify the signals and make sure everyone knows the play and his responsibility in coverage. It's a method Sanders said he used at Nebraska back in 2003, and now that the Huskers have actual game film, it should be even more effective.

"What we're trying to do is get used to getting a sense of, as you watch film, the speed of it," Sanders said. "Trying to make the calls and identifying situations. That's what that is all about, trying to identify the sets of the different offensive formations and what to expect. That's just kind of what we do as a defense. On the night or morning of a game, we kind of give them the calls and let them visualize the plays."

Looking ahead on Nebraska's schedule, the Huskers will get plenty of chances to improve their play in the secondary before the start of the conference season. Even with pass-heavy teams like San Jose State and New Mexico State, NU's defensive backs will be tested on a weekly basis before having to go up against some of the nation's best aerial assaults in Missouri and Texas Tech.

For the Huskers, a drastic improvement in their play against the pass isn't just a goal. It's an expectation.

"Western Michigan should not have put that many points on the board," Asante said. "That was all on us. We pretty much gave them everything. They didn't come out and do anything X's and O's to beat us. It was all on us. We gave them the points."

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