Saturday notebook: Defensive comfort, communication paying off
Since the opening Fan Day press conference and on through the first three practices of fall camp, Nebraska’s defensive players have been raving about how much more comfortable they are in the Huskers’ system and how improved the communication within the unit has been as a result.
It’s one thing for the players to think that, though. Has NU’s coaching staff noticed a similar progression?
“No doubt,” defensive coordinator Mark Banker said following Saturday’s practice.
Banker added that he noticed right away the defense has been playing faster this fall because they have such a better handle on the schemes.
A perfect example of that improvement came as recently as Saturday’s session. Banker said the defense met three different times during the morning and afternoon prior to practice and installed nine zone pressure schemes.
Because the players are now so much more familiar with the system and the calls, the defense executed all nine of those new pressures perfectly when they were called during practice.
“They know more of what to expect, and it’s second nature now,” Banker said. “It’s helping with taking the thinking out, the reactions are getting better, and we’re starting to play faster. That’s the key. We don’t want to play defensive defense. We want to be offensive in what we do, and it’s got to be reactionary.”
The fast start to fall camp defensively continues to be a big reason for optimism for Nebraska’s players and coaches alike.
“I feel like every day we’re getting better,” junior safety Kieron Williams said. “We're communicating better, which I think is the biggest thing. We’re just starting to gel better than we were last year at this point, just because we know the defense already.
“We ran the defense last year, so this year it’s about learning the smallest things that can help us win those five or six games that we should have won.”
- Robin Washut
Stoltenberg gaining confidence
It’s been a long road to recovery for sophomore defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg. The Gretna native suffered his second major knee injury over a three-year period during the Huskers bowl preparations for UCLA.
During Stoltenberg’s senior year of high school he injured his left knee, and it was the right knee he hurt in a non-contact drill last December. This week has been his first time on the field since the injury, and it’s no doubt been a work in progress.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do especially after missing the spring,” Stoltenberg said. “Nothing is out there to take, I have to go get it. Obviously I have to work really hard and work with the guys in the room. We’ve got a pretty good mind set going into the fall.”
Stoltenberg wants to keep his weight around 295 pounds this season. He feels like that’s his best playing weight. He also gave a lot of credit to NU’s training staff for getting him ready for camp.
“Obviously there’s been a ton of work done in the training room,” Stoltenberg said. “It was a day in and day out thing, so it wasn’t too new to me. When spring came around, it was good to get the mental stuff down without the physical part. Just kind of trying to eliminate any buffering process when I got back. It felt good to get that mental part down in the spring.
- Sean Callahan
Williams changes number to honor Foltz
Shortly after the tragic passing of senior punter Sam Foltz just before the start of fall camp, it didn’t take long for Kieron Williams to know he needed to make a change.
Williams had shared Foltz’s No. 27 jersey number for the past three seasons. But this year Williams decided there was no way he could continue wearing the number, so he contacted Nebraska’s coaching staff and told them he wanted to change to No. 26.
“With Sam, I don’t think there could be a better representative of the No. 27,” Williams said. “So I had a talk with coaches, and I just was like, ‘That number needs to be put somewhere, and it needs to be remembered as him.’ So the number 26 is what I have now.”
The change wasn’t exactly entirely new for Williams. Because he and Foltz were both on the field together during games on the punt team, Williams had to wear 26 in every game last season.
As for why he picked 26 as his game day backup, Williams said he let his grandmother pick it out for him last year.
“She just told me the number 26 means ‘a new beginning’ or something like that,” Williams said. “That’s what she sent me in the text message. So I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll go with the number 26.’”
- Robin Washut
NFL wide receivers add another element to summer workouts
Technically Nebraska’s current players weren’t allowed to train with the NFL players that came to workout with wide receivers coach Keith Williams in mid-July.
However, senior wide receiver Brandon Reilly said he still took quite a bit away from just watching them go through a lot of the same drills the do on a regular basis.
The list of players that came to train with Williams were former Huskers like Kenny Bell (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Ameer Abdullah (Detroit Lions), along with Ryan Grant (Washington Redskins), James Jones (San Diego Chargers), Jeremy Ross (N.Y. Jets), Xavier Rush (Philadelphia Eagles) and De’Anthony Thomas (Kansas City Chiefs).
“We couldn’t work out with them just because NCAA rules,” Reilly said. “They had balls out there but we all went out there and watched them. You know it was crazy. It just kind of makes you feel better because some of the cone drills we do, we struggle, but then we see guys like De’Anthony Thomas and he’s struggling with them, and it’s like oh well they are tough and it just takes practice.
“We see guys like James Jones as smooth as he is, but he’s just been working with Coach (Williams) so long. It just kind of shows you that their quickness and speed is pretty incredible and just his attention to detail. It was good seeing that and learning that from those guys.”
Head coach Mike Riley has taken a different approach this season with naming captains. Last year Riley named captains in early June before the start of summer workouts.
After looking over how that went, Riley has not yet committed with when or even how he'll name captains for this year's team.
However, if one thing is certain, Nebraska's senior players are definitely in favor of having a team vote to select captains.
“I would like captains just because it’s what my dad grew up with, what he had when he was here and he always talked about that sort of thing,” senior linebacker Josh Banderas said.
“It’s really what Coach Riley decides and just because you’re named captain doesn’t make you a captain. People are going to look up to whoever they look up too.”
***Banker said he “loves coaching Nate Gerry” in part because the safety is a great player, but also because he can be a little stubborn at times. “I like that,” Banker added.
He said even though Gerry has made a big jump from last year in his understanding of the defense, and an example of that Saturday was when he came down and locked up a receiver in the slot - something he struggled with most of last year.
***Banker said Joshua Kalu and Chris Jones were “without a doubt the two best cornerbacks in our program.” Banker said Kalu has “improved tremendously” since last season, while Jones has added noticeable muscle and strength which has translated into much more confidence and aggressiveness in his play.
***Banker said the safety depth chart at this point was Gerry, Antonio Reed, and Reid Karel at one spot, while Aaron Williams and Kieron Williams were battling for the other starting job and Avery Anderson was behind them.
***Aaron Williams said he, Charles Jackson and Kalu have all been taking reps at nickel back early on this fall. Banker hinted that Williams might be the front runner since he played there last season, but added that Kalu "desperately wants to play there."
***Secondary coach Brian Stewart said having the five new freshmen defensive backs arrive on campus early this summer helped them get a bigger jump than any freshman class he’s had. He said none have been overwhelmed with the first few practices because of the work they put in this summer.
***Defensive line coach John Parrella said NU needs its starting front four established soon, but added they also need to work on developing depth. He said they need a number of guys who can play at least 40 snaps a game if needed.
***Linebackers coach Trent Bray lack of linebackers last year really hurt Nebraska on special teams as much as anything. He said that won’t be issue this year with the amount of depth the position has this season, though. Last season NU had 3-4 running backs on special teams last year.
***Foltz's father, Gerald, and several coaches from his Grand Island High School, including head coach Jeff Tomlin, were in attendance for Saturday’s practice.
***The Huskers got a nice little treat following practice, as they were given free Kona Ice shaved ice cones.