By Brian Rosenthal / Huskers.com
Nebraska’s first spring football practice on March 4 provided a glimpse of the spirit, excitement and passion Bob Diaco would begin instilling in the Blackshirts.
Let sophomore defensive back Eric Lee Jr. explain.
“One thing that stood out to me, he got so excited – I think one of the ‘backers contained the outside, or something – that he accidentally knocked the ball out of Tristan’s hands in the middle of the play,” Lee said, referring to freshman quarterback Tristan Gebbia.
“Without any thought, he started hitting up-downs, and we all thought that was funny.”
Funny, and, well, awkward.
At first, anyway.
“Coach Diaco is just running everywhere,” Lee said. “But throughout the spring, it’s kind of flowed through everyone else. We try to carry that energy and match that intensity level he brings to each practice.”
Lee said the energy level “felt dead at times” last season during practice.
Nebraska fans will undoubtedly notice the difference Saturday, when the Huskers conclude the spring season with practice No. 15 – also known as the Red-White Spring Game at 1 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.
Fans have purchased more than 67,000 tickets, a sign many are probably curious about an on-going quarterback battle and the new leader of the Blackshirts.
Head coach Mike Riley, entering his third season, hired Diaco, the former Connecticut head coach, as defensive coordinator in January.
Tangibly, Diaco has been installing a new-look, 3-4 defense that will take advantage of Nebraska’s depth and talent at linebacker. A former defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, Diaco has shown a penchant for leading defenses stingy on points and big plays.
Intangibly, the 44-year-old Diaco is instilling the fire and passion meant to accompany the famous Blackshirts’ skull-and-crossbones logo.
“You definitely want to have that high energy, high-level intensity when you’re playing defense,” Lee said. “Like Coach Diaco says, unlike offense, we can’t punt whenever we mess up. So you have to carry that high intensity throughout practice all the time.”
Again, it didn’t take long for players to realize Diaco’s mantra.
“First day of practice,” Lee said, “and we kind of knew what kind of guy he was. It was a lot of fun to watch that.”
How have players responded?
“I would definitely say Coach Diaco drove it into us,” Lee said.
Diaco has noticed, too. He saw in Saturday’s scrimmage the contained celebrations when the Blackshirts made plays.
“Energy, focus, excitement, joy, care about the work, care for each other,” Diaco said Tuesday, when asked what’s stood out to him about the defense throughout the spring. “It’s very important to them, and they’re working very, very hard. That stands out every day.”
Lee, contending for time at nickel back, was in on the play-making action in Saturday’s situational scrimmage. He had a near-interception of Patrick O’Brien, forced an incompletion with tight coverage on the next play, and earlier had forced an incompletion, thrown by Tanner Lee, on a pass into the end zone.
“Eric Lee is having a really nice spring,” Diaco said. “He’s working himself into a position where he doesn’t look out of place with a group. He’s productive, he’s got good football intelligence and he’s showing some tangible and intangible traits that we covet in equal participation. So we’re trying to find a role for him and see if he can rise to the occasion.”
Diaco also lauded several defensive veterans “doing a really great job” this spring.
“So rarely do we get a chance to say (linebacker) Chris Weber is a stalwart and a leader and doing everything the right way,” Diaco said. “(Safety) Aaron Williams does it all right and is fundamentally sound. (Cornerback) Chris Jones is the same, approaches his work with a deep professionalism.
“Mick (Stoltenberg) is intangibly tough. He’s a grinding worker, he’s an aggressive player, he’s very intense, he’s highly competitive,” Diaco said of the junior nose tackle. “His competitive spirit doesn’t allow for him to get down. Tangibly, he’s a big, physical 300-plus pounder who can knock blockers back. He can move and step with both of his feet. He’s got fast, heavy hands.”
Of course, Nebraska has plenty of work ahead of its Sept. 2 opener against Arkansas State. The defensive front must master fundamentals relating to “block destruction,” one of Diaco’s favorite terms. Communication throughout the defense must improve, too.
“We need to grow in our communication and make sure we’re demonstratively communicating,” Diaco said. “If there is an issue right now or an error, it’s based on a communication violation or an eye-discipline violation.”
When it comes to Xs and Os, fans should not judge Diaco’s defense based on what they see Saturday.
“If you’re interested in filming the spring game to figure out what we’re going to do on defense," he said, "you’re going to waste a lot of film and footage.”
But when it comes to players throwing the bones, or perhaps a coach inadvertently knocking the ball out of a true freshman quarterbacks’ hands?
Reach Brian at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @GBRosenthal.