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Everybody's talking about Nebraska changing its offense, and the Huskers will start pouring the foundation for that new house when spring practice begins Saturday. But there also will be changes on the defensive side of the ball this season, and that evolutionary building process also begins this weekend.
Ask Carl Pelini what he enjoys most about spring football and Nebraska's fourth-year defensive coordinator gives you an honest answer - playing mad scientist, so he can mesh his team's primary strengths with a new wrinkle here or a tweak there.
Whatever Carl and his revamped defensive staff come up with this spring should continue the program's renaissance and might even produce Nebraska's best defense in Bo Pelini's four-year revival.
"I think we can be real stout against the run, and I think our secondary is going to be really good," Pelini told me earlier this week. "I mean, there's potential for us to have our best defense we've had here. Potential, of course, means nothing, but we have all the pieces in place, and I like our depth."
Now that we teased you with one of the highlights of our conversation in Carl's office, we encourage you to read the interview in its entirety.
Q: With this your fourth spring practice here, what kind of carryover effect does that have on the principles you teach?
A: We've had two pretty good years defensively, back-to-back. We're excited about where we are and yet, you never want to be stagnant. So this is always a fun time of the year because you look at things you can do differently - things you can add or take out of your package. You play a little mad scientist throughout this period. Spring ball becomes a real experimental time for you to see what you're good at and what you want to emphasize. You know, it's funny. You have the same package three straight years, but we'll look completely different based on who we are in terms of our players, what we're good at and what we choose to emphasize.
Q: You love playing the mad scientist role, don't you?
A: I do. I love talking x's and o's in the off season, even if it is semi-meaningless. There's always a lot of good discussion and a lot of good ideas, but bottom line, you have to be able to execute. It's a matter of putting it on the field in the spring and see what you like, what you don't like and tweaking it here and there and then you're ready to go into fall camp.
Q: Are linebackers more likely to rejoin your defensive scheme in the Big Ten after two-thirds of them would leave the field to defend a multitude of offenses in the Big 12 or are we over generalizing?
A: We might be over generalizing a little bit. We'll face physical, downhill run-style teams in the Big Ten. We're still going to face the spread, and we're still going to face some creative offenses. So there's going to be a place for the linebackers, and there's going to be a place for the peso defense (where DBs replace LBs on the field) as well. That depends on depth. Everybody wants to oversimplify what we did in the Big 12 with that peso package because it was all driven by opponent. But honestly, I think 90 percent of it was driven by the fact that we were very talented at the safety position. That's where (Eric) Hagg and (DeJon) Gomes were and (Courtney) Osborne and P.J. (Smith) and (Austin) Cassidy. You go down the line, you want to keep your best athletes on the field. Ultimately, I think that's what we got tired of the year before - seeing Hagg come off the field because he was one of our better players, and we wanted a system where he could be on the field for every snap.
Q: You coached with Ross Els. Tell us why you're so excited to have him coaching your linebackers.
A: No. 1, he's very knowledgeable in our defense. I worked with him in Ohio, and he's spent a lot of time with Bo. The last couple of years, he's been up here, and we talk a lot of football on the phone, too. He gets it. There wasn't a lot of teaching involved. He knew what we were doing. We've been very open with him. That, coupled with the fact that he has a tremendous future, made this the right opportunity at the right time. He's coached at a lot of different levels, and I've always said that my time in high school made me a better football coach. Sometimes, when a guy comes right to major college football - sometimes, not all the time - there's a tendency to rely too much on that and not rely on the teaching aspect. Whereas, when guys spend time at lower levels at some point in their careers, they have to be good teachers because they don't always have a choice in who's playing the position. They have to make the most out of what they have. That's what I like about Ross. He's great in the classroom. He has a great rapport with his guys already. I love watching him teach. Bo has the same kind of confidence in Corey Raymond coaching our secondary. Bo worked with Corey at LSU, so he knows exactly what we're getting there, too. Familiarity is good when you want to make important changes.
Q: You return potential All-Americans in Jared Crick at tackle, Lavonte David at linebacker and Alfonzo Dennard at corner. How important is having that kind of talent evenly distributed?
A: To have one in every group is important because they're not just talented players. They're great leaders - guys that never take a practice off and are always working at the game. You couldn't be in a better situation. It's like having another coach on the field. I can go beyond them. Will Compton approaches the game that way. So does Cameron Meredith. On the back end, there's Austin Cassidy. Those guys are going to be great leaders and provide a solid nucleus for us.
Q: You won't know until next fall, but what do you envision will be the overall strength of this defense?
A: Every year we get better in terms of our knowledge of the system, and so every year as coaches, I feel like we can go deeper into what we know because there's already a basis for understanding the other stuff. We're not spending a whole lot of time teaching the basics of the defense anymore. We'll still review it early in the spring, but ultimately, we can get pretty advanced pretty fast, and that allows us to open up our own ideas. So I think we can be very multiple defensively. I think we can be real stout against the run, and I think our secondary is going to be really good. I mean, there's potential for us to have our best defense we've had here. Potential, of course, means nothing, but we have all the pieces in place, and I like our depth. I think we're very deep, but have to develop some depth at linebacker. I think every other position on the field is deeper since I've been here. It's not like linebacker can't be deep. Injuries affect experience, so this group will have the e chance to go much deeper.
Q: What's the biggest challenge for this defense to live up to the standards of the last two Blackshirt units?
A: The biggest challenge is to create its own identity. We had great chemistry in that room, and that is something you can't take for granted. We lost some awfully talented seniors who were good leaders. Every year, you hope that the next class is willing to step up and take on that role. There are no guarantees. For me, the biggest challenge is chemistry because that helps determine identity.
Q: Pierre Allen, Prince Amukamara, DeJon Gomes and Eric Hagg are participating in the NFL Combine that began today. Describe what kind of pros you think those four might be.
A: "They all have a great opportunity to perform at that level. They all have the required skill sets. They've all demonstrated a tremendous work ethic. I've always thought when a kid goes from college to the pros, the hardest transition to make is going from football being a game to football being a trade. I think these four guys have looked at the sport that way already. That's why I don't see this being a hard adjustment for any of the four. Coming out of this program, they've already made that adjustment. We ask them to think about football, and they're all well adjusted mentally about the game. It all depends on what team needs what position, but I do know all four can play at the next level.
Q: Based on last season's scout team and this year's winter conditioning, what defensive players should be on the fans' radar now that weren't before?
A: Our guys are always on the radar. There are a lot of guys we've watched and are excited about. At the safety position, I really like Corey Cooper and Harvey Jackson. I think they're going to find themselves in the mix pretty quick. Ciante Evans, Josh Mitchell, Andrew Green ... let me just say this: there are a number of corners who are stepping up and will fight for those spots. I think we're good at linebacker. We're just not deep. I like (Trevor) Roach and (Graham) Stoddard and (Matt) May. They had solid off- seasons, and I think that's going to be important for our defense. Now it's important they step up and have good springs. That's a lot more pressure.
Q: Go to the other side of the ball and talk about a fellow Youngstown native. Did you weigh in with Bo on the decision to hire Tim Beck? What are you expecting from him as offensive coordinator, and will this offense be more physical and more power-oriented?
A: Absolutely I weighed in. Let me put it this way. I believe right now, with the staff we have in place, we have a culture that pervades the entire team. There's no split. Our team is unified. What Tim is going to bring to that side of the ball is a demand for perfection. Obviously, it's hard to achieve perfection, but you can still demand it. I'm excited about eliminating mistakes, stupid penalties and turnovers. I think the offense under Tim will be very well thought out. I think he looks at football very much the way we do - studying an opponent and understanding where and how you want to attack. Finding a weakness and having the ability to get in and out of an offense is how you take advantage of what a defense is doing. I think we're going to see all of those things. But what it's going to come down to for us is a continued focus on the fundamentals of the game. That's something we always try to do on the defensive side. Before we do anything else, we try to make sure we're good tacklers, good with our hands and stay low - things you learn in youth football. I think fundamentals can get lost in an offense. You can't stay multiple and forget the basics of the game. That's something Tim gets, and I'm excited about that. It's going to be a physical, competitive spring for both sides of the ball. I'm excited about all of this development, and I want to watch it all come to life as much as anyone. I'm excited about the offense having the same mentality we have. I love the dialogue that's going on between the offensive side of the ball and the defense. As we go through spring, I think it's going to make everybody better. It's going to make the offense better because they're going to look at themselves in a different way, and I think it's going to make us better on defense. As they scheme against us, I'm sure they'll expose some of our weaknesses. So it's going to be good for both sides.
Q: You seem to be gaining a reputation as a persuasive public speaker. A couple weekends ago, you delivered a one-hour speech. What do you talk about to keep people's attention that long?
A: I try to give them a glimpse inside our program and what I think the culture of it is. Sometimes, I think people come to those things expecting a rah-rah kind of talk, and I surprise them a little bit because I try to talk to them mostly about the challenges that face a Division I program and Division I athletes in 2011. How do we at the University of Nebraska counter those challenges or succeed in the face of those challenges? I spent a lot of time talking about how we develop young men - from the moment we start to recruit them to the minute they get their degree and graduate from the University of Nebraska. They seem to find it fascinating. One thing that I hope they take away from our talks is that something can appear one way in the media, but is not true inside the program. One thing about Bo and everyone in our program is we DO have a culture we're trying to build here, and we do have a philosophy of character development and player development. It's an umbrella over every decision that we make. One thing I notice and people can argue back and forth over whether we're open enough in the program or not, but I do know that every decision that's made in this program is for the protection of and the betterment of the people who are in the program. I think Bo takes that very seriously. He is not only in charge of but responsible to people, and I respect him for that and for the way he goes about his business. That doesn't always make you popular, but to me, it's the most important thing. I know this. I can look the troops in the eye and say we take care of them because we do. We defend them and take care of them. We're not perfect, but we try to do what is always best for them. It may not always be easiest for others, but that's our guiding philosophy, and that's the way we operate.
Voices from Husker Nation
Your "Mad Scientist" piece was an excellent interview. Carl is entertaining, but you did a nice job of bringing him out. Frank Johnson, Omaha, Nebraska
Count me among the Nebraska fans who are excited to see some fundamentals and creativity mixed together on the offensive side to match the amazing turnaround that happened on defense. Great Q&A. GBR! Steve Sorensen, Atlanta, Georgia
Thanks for answering so many questions that my friends and I have asked each other on weekends after kids' basketball games. I'm sharing this column with them. Glad the Mad Scientist and his brother Bo are on our sideline. Chris Johnson, Denver, Colorado
I just want you to know the wonderful job you do with keeping us informed. I really appreciate it. You are the greatest. Please keep up the good work. I really enjoy seeing Bo actually sit and talk. It was just great. Dale Sutton, Papillion, Nebraska
I hate to see someday soon Carl will not be part of Nebraska coaching team. Maybe I am selfish, but he is such a tremendous coach and knows all the ins and outs about coaching from many different levels. Because he is a tremendously intelligent coach and work great with young kids, it will be a great loss for Nebraska if some school offers him a head coaching job. But at the same time, it would be great for him to come out of Bo's shadow and be successful in his own right. Roger L Wong
Thanks for another great interview. It provides some very good insight into the psyche of Bo and Carl. Jerry Wood, Valrico, Florida