Carl Pelini: Blackshirts Deeper, More Physical and More Knowledgeable
Defensive Coordinator Carl Pelini says great defenses are the result of 11 players working together.
Photo Courtesy Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications
Courtesy: NU Athletic Communications
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Carl Pelini is a product of Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio, just like his brother, Bo Pelini, and fellow NU coordinator, Tim Beck, are. He played in the Ivy League at Columbia before getting his B.A. in English Literature at Youngstown State. He then earned two Master's degrees - one in Journalism at Kansas State and another in Education at Ohio State. Nebraska's fourth-year defensive coordinator and father of three sat down with the N-Sider to discuss a range of topics that includes three preseason All-America candidates on the Blackshirts; the legacy of Ndamukong Suh and how the All-Pro still influences recruiting; the speed, talent and overall depth on defense; the two new assistants that now help direct the Blackshirts; the Holiday Bowl collapse that triggered a renewed sense of urgency among Husker players and coaches; memories spurred by growing up in a Big Ten state; the need for Nebraska to return to its more physical offensive identity; and the names of rising stars that will get your attention. Enjoy the conversation.

Q: You've watched film, analyzed players and determined where you are as an overall defense. Where are you?

A: Ahead of where we were last year. We made such huge strides last year throughout the camp and throughout the season, so we have to match that. I think we're as deep as we've ever been physically, and I think that knowledge-wise, we're ahead of where we've ever been. But again, the improvement has to match what's it's been because being ahead at this point doesn't really help you all that much.

Q: Can you describe the defenses you've coached in your first three years here and how this one might compare to the first three?

A: In terms of numbers and guys you can put in the game that have experience, we're deeper in the secondary, and we're deeper up-front. Because of injuries last year and other issues the first two years here, we've ended each season with a lot of question marks at linebacker. We still don't have great depth there yet, but we're developing that, and I do believe if we can stay healthy in fall camp, we're not going to have the question marks that we've had at linebacker. Right now, I'd say we're a little bit ahead of the game. 

Q: What's the greatest strength of this defense?

A: I think the strength could be all three levels across the board. Early on, we were really good up front. Last year, obviously, I thought we were really talented in the secondary. The year before, injuries at linebacker kind of hurt us. So, I'd say we have experience and play-makers at all three levels.

Q: What are your biggest areas of concern?

A: We have some young guys that have to come in and play well so we can develop some depth at linebacker. We know, at that position, you're only as good as your back-ups. We think we have them. They just need to continue to learn and improve.

Q: Jared Crick, Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard are All-America candidates. How do they become the fabric of the Blackshirts, and how will they influence your discipline and style?

A: They have to be disciplined and unselfish. In our scheme, you can't be individuals because it depends on 10 other guys doing their job. When Jared's rushing the passer, he has to know that if that coverage isn't happening behind him, it's not going to help because that ball is going to get away before he can get there. Lavonte knows that he's not going to set the tackle record unless he has a defensive line in front of him that commands a double team. Alfonzo knows that no matter how good his coverage is, he can't cover all day, so there has to be pressure up front. They all get tha, and they all three understand the key aspects of our defense.

Q: How can this defense be selfless with those three leading the charge?

A: We always talk about how overall, we have to be "11 good". We can't have three great players and expect to have a great defense. It takes 11 working together to be great, and that's our goal.

Q: Does Crick get excited when he gets the green light at defensive end?

A: Yeah, a little bit. We play around with him some there. One thing we try to do as coaches is create matchups for certain offenses. We can use Eric (Martin) in different ways. It's the same with Cameron (Meredith), Jared and Lavonte.  A year ago, we used Eric Hagg in different ways. Trying different matchups to create an advantage is something we played around with in the spring, so we could use Jared's combination of speed and power. He creates a different challenge for an offensive tackle. Moving him down to a three-technique creates another challenge for an offensive guard. Cameron is capable of moving inside just like Jared is capable of moving outside.

Q: Chemistry is pivotal among coaches, and this year you have two new assistants on your staff. Can you describe what Ross Els brings to the linebackers and what Corey Raymond offers the secondary?

A: They're both very detailed guys. When you're sitting in a meeting and talking about adjustments or whatever else, they're very involved in the discussion. As a coordinator, I have a hundred percent confidence that whatever happens in that discussion is going to get translated in the classroom because they're both very good teachers as well. I like where we are in terms of our defensive staff. We've always been that way. There is no dictation in our staff meetings. Everybody's throwing ideas around, everybody's involved in the discussion and everybody's a part of the final decision. The more sets of eyes and minds you get working on a problem, the better chance you have of getting a good solution.

Q: We waited until now to bring up the Big Ten, the oldest conference in the country - the league that little brother Bo played in. What will it mean for you to match wits with the Big Ten powers you grew up with?

A: Well, I've been trying to match wits for the three years with some awfully good coaches in the Big 12, but for me growing up, the Big Ten was college football. I mean, there were rivalries like Penn State-Pitt, Alabama-Auburn, Nebraska-Oklahoma and USC-UCLA. But week-to-week, at least for me, college football was whatever the Big Ten had on as its Game of the Week and, of course, Michigan-Ohio State. So yeah, it's special, and it's going to be even more special to get to coach against those teams in those stadiums that I grew up watching. Watching those games is where I learned to love college football.

Q: As a Youngstown native, who'd you used to root for?

A: I was a die-hard Ohio State fan when I was young. The Woody Hayes teams and the Earl Bruce teams were teams I remembered ... you know, the 'ol three yards and a cloud of dust. I loved the running game at Nebraska, Oklahoma and Ohio State, and I still do. I loved watching that physical brand of football, so that's what I watched growing up. All three were my kind of teams - the ones I always wanted to watch more than any others.

Q: What was it like following the league and keeping track of brother Bo?

A: I was a G.A. (Graduate Assistant) at K-State when Bo played at Ohio State, so the only games I caught were their games against Michigan. Once Earl Bruce was gone, Ohio State changed, so I followed Penn State a little bit more before they went into the Big Ten. I've always had great appreciation for Big Ten football. I loved Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler and the way their teams played. I also appreciated how physical Michigan State was under George Perles. For me, the Big Ten Conference was an easy conference to root for because I loved watching them play.

Q: How far is Nebraska going back to its physical roots on offense?

A: You know, there is nothing in sports - and this goes back to when I was a high school coach - that compares to being involved in a football game and knowing, as a coach, that you can simply impose your will on the team across from you. It doesn't matter what they run, you know you can hit 'em in the mouth and stop it. And you know that whatever you call on offense, you're going to knock 'em off the ball and gain three or four yards. That is the most thrilling feeling as a coach, and on the other side of the ball, it's the most defeating and disheartening moment in sports because it leaves you grasping at straws and knowing there's nothing you can do to stop it. That's what you work for - on offense and defense.

Q: How long will it take for an offense to take on a dominating-type attitude?

A: That's the goal every Saturday. I know how physical the spring was for the offense and what they want out of fall camp. I also know what we're capable of doing over there and how smart those guys are. The athletes you play against on Tuesdays can beat your head against the wall. There has to be a level of imposing your will, but there also has to be a level of solid understanding with the strengths and weaknesses of the defense. You take what they give you. There has to be a balance, and that's what they're good at.

Q: When you recruit, do high school players know you coached Ndamukong Suh, and how much leverage does that give you?

A: It definitely is a factor, and we talk about it. But, at the same time, every kid is different, and there has to be some sort of connection beyond that in terms of how your personalities match up and how you relate to each other. I think the Suh relationship is an attention-grabber, but I don't think it seals the deal. From the first moment you grab someone's attention, there's a lot of work and a lot of water that goes under the bridge before someone finally signs. We sell his story to kids at every position, not just D-linemen. This is a program where you're not given anything. You have to earn everything. There are no promises. All we can do is talk about the successes we've had and the opportunities to become a part of that. It all depends on how fast and how far you develop so you can become the best player you can be. We have great competition on the defensive side of the ball, and if you're up to that challenge, then come here because we're going to make you even better. Our successes are a good recruiting tool, and by the same token, I think it scares some kids away. Some want to go to a place where they're promising playing time.

Q: Can you compare recruiting today at Nebraska to the obstacles you had in your first two years?

A:  Fortunately for us, the people who truly followed college football still knew Nebraska was better (despite dropping to 112th in overall defense in 2007). I go out to California to recruit, and they remember how special Nebraska was in the 1990s. There were still a lot of those holdover coaches and high school AD's around that were excited to see us back there. Now, with the players, when I walk into that school with that Nebraska shirt on, they get the excitement we have about the Big Ten and the success we've had the last couple years playing for the Big 12 Championship. They like our defense, and they really get why we're excited.

Q: What carried you through such a monumental challenge?

A: In terms of coaching challenges, it's just not who we are to worry about where we were before. We just knew we had a challenge teaching our scheme and getting them to understand the effort and fundamentals of how we coach. That was our challenge and our focus. We were just confident enough in what we do that we knew the more we could get across in that short amount of time, the better we were going to be. We weathered that storm early on in our first year and once the fundamentals and the coaching took hold, we got better week-by-week. There was a genuine sense of satisfaction at the end of that first season when we looked how far we had come from that first game to the end of that Clemson game in the Gator Bowl. It was very satisfying to watch the course of our development that first season.

Q: How much will the disappointment from the Holiday Bowl against Washington last December play into the team's overall resolve this season?

A: I would say that anytime, as Bo would say "you get punched in the mouth," you get beat, and we got beat that night. It hurts your pride, and it's going to affect how you move on. At that point, quitters quit, and winners double their efforts. I think our players learned a lesson that night that you never take an opponent or a game for granted. Anyone in college football can beat anyone else on any given day. I know people say that all the time, and everyone thinks it's a cliché, but it's also the truth. A valuable lesson was learned that night, and I hope that our players hang onto that feeling and never forget it. At the same time, this is a new team, a different year and a new challenge. So we want to learn from it and then move on. We do not want to dwell on it.

Q: Can we get short takes on your three best-known Blackshirts?

A: Jared (Crick) is a very quick reactor. He's great with his hands and does a good job of controlling blockers. He reacts quickly to what he sees and what he feels. He gets off blocks very well, and he can flat run for a big guy. Speed doesn't always do you a lot of good at that position unless you have an opportunity to use it, and Jared puts himself in a place where he can use his speed very well. Lavonte (David) is another quick reactor that has a great feel for the box. He just always seems to be around the football. He has that knack that great linebackers have and is equally good defending the run and the pass. He's a very balanced player. He's very heady and has a great feel for the game. Fonzo has that swagger about him that makes a corner great. He's physical and yet he has great speed and great ball skills. He can really jump and has all those things that a good corner has to have. I've seen a lot of great athletes who aren't great corners because they don't have the mindset Fonzo has or his confidence. You gotta be confident, and you have to have a short memory to work through what it takes to be great at corner. When a guy catches a ball on you, I talk to our DB's about Deion Sanders, who always said he just couldn't remember that play. If you don't forget quickly, it will affect the rest of the game. You can't play like the greatest corner in the world. Across the board, the three of them are great students of the game. Everything I've said about all three would be meaningless if they didn't work so hard at the mental aspect of it. That's what's great about having guys like those three leading your football team. Not only are they great players, but they're great examples in teaching all the guys around them how to work and how to prepare.

Q: Who else on this defense has the ability to rise up and get people's attention?

A: Cameron Meredith could have a real break-out year. He's healthy. His shoulder's back. I think Will Compton and Sean Fisher are both chomping at the bit. They were both ready to play last year, and injuries took 'em out. Austin Cassidy's been a great leader and has a year under his belt. And I think Ciante Evans is feeling it. He's very hungry because of all the attention paid to Prince Amukamara and the talk about having a hole to fill there. That has really motivated him to prepare. I also believe our defensive ends - Jason Ankrah, Eric Martin and Josh Williams all could have break-out years. I could keep going. Thad Randle is another one. He could be a dominant player. That's the thing about this defense. Thad's also faster and healthier than he's ever been. And Terrence Moore had the best summer he's ever had. It's hard to name names. I think all could play, and I hope all do play because that'll mean we'll be pretty good.

Q: Let's talk about fall camp. What are you looking for, and what kind of identity do you see this defense creating?

A: I'm always excited at this point of the season, and I just think, across the board, this could be as physical a defense as we've ever had here. But that only comes through practicing that way. We have great leadership, and that also excites me. I want our defense always to play harder than anyone else. We have guys that understand the value of that and want to do that and be that. It really creates a lot of excitement when they get what our expectations are and gear themselves to meeting those expectations. If we can spend 98 or 99 percent of our time coaching the fundamentals of our scheme and only 1 or 2 percent of our time coaching effort and attitude, we'll be pretty good. That's where I think we are, and I go back to our Leadership Council and the way they voted before the players left for three weeks. I think if our coaches had picked our Leadership Council, it would have turned out exactly the way the players wanted. There's a reason why our coaches and players are excited this fall. As coaches, we know our leadership is good, especially when they (the players) see things the exact same way we see them.

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Voices from Husker Nation

"This is a program where you're not given anything. You have to earn everything. There are no promises." I enjoyed reading every answer that Carl Pelini provided in this interview, but that was my favorite quote because it rubber-stamps how the Blackshirts have differentiated themselves from other programs through the years. Pelini hit the nail on the head in this equally compelling quote regarding his three preseason All-America candidates on defense: "They have to be disciplined and unselfish. In our scheme, you can't be individuals because it depends on 10 other guys doing their job" Somewhere, even out here on the West Coast, Monte Kiffin must be smiling because that's the way it was with Kiffin in charge of the defense in the '60s and early '70s and the tradition carried on by Charlie McBride under Tom Osborne. Thanks, Bo and Carl for restoring the order on defense. I can't help but think that our Blackshirts will help the offense make a similar turnaround. I mean, Saturdays will be easy compared to going against Crick, David, Dennard & Co. during the week. Go Big Red! Jerry Jacobs, Costa Mesa, California

Coach Carl brought up a point that my friends and I have discussed for two years - how important it is to have an offense that can impose its will on the defense. Not only does that wear a defense out, but it keeps the defense fresh. Everyone knows we had a championship defense the last two years, and now, even though it will take time to fully develop, we are building the foundation of a championship offense. I can't think of a more perfect time for that to happen than our first year in the granddaddy of all conferences. Tom Johnson, Omaha, Nebraska

Your interviews are THE BEST reporting of everything I read. And I read everything I can get my eyes on about the Huskers. Thanks for your stellar work! It's like finding a porterhouse in the midst of Internet pablum. You ask questions that so many of us would ask, and your interview subjects seem to have a rapport that helps them open up and give more detail. That was especially true for Carl Pelini. I just want to say thanks for being a real craftsman at what you do. Go Big Red! Dave Kassing, Colorado Springs, Colorado

I live in the west suburbs of Chicagoland. I met a friend for lunch recently at a sports bar in Lombard. On its wall were 11 banners of Big Ten Conference teams. One was missing, so I asked if I could speak to the manager. She sent him over, and I shared my observation. He said he would look into it.  A week later, I stopped again. The manager recognized me and came over to report that all the banners were donations from alums. I said I would take care of it, so I came home and ordered a banner. It arrived today and delivery has been made. I was promised the banner would join the other 11 in the next week. Thanks for all the great N-Siders and let the season begin!! Ron Griess, UNL Class of 1967, Hinsdale, Illinois


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