Bob Diaco wasn’t feeling particularly nostalgic Tuesday.
Yes, he was a two-time All-Big Ten linebacker at Iowa during the early 1990s. But now, as Nebraska’s first-year defensive coordinator, he says he’s thinking about only the Husker players, specifically his defenders. He’s thinking about how to best prepare them to play the Hawkeyes at 3 p.m. Friday at Memorial Stadium.
It will be Nebraska’s final game in what has been a dreadfully long season.
“I have no other energy really left for any other feeling or emotion or …” Diaco said before being cut off by a reporter.
Contrast this version of Diaco, somewhat quiet and subdued, to the Diaco who pumped seemingly boundless energy into Nebraska’s defense during the spring and into August. His high-octane coaching style captured the imagination of fans and media. In fact, media positively gushed about the new coordinator in town. Nebraska head coach Mike Riley fired a 20-year colleague, Mark Banker, in order to lure Diaco to Lincoln.
Surely, Diaco’s 3-4 system would take hold quickly. Surely, his energy and clarity of vision would have a positive impact this season.
It hasn’t worked that way. The numbers don’t lie. Nebraska’s defense has allowed 6.2 yards per play, which is worse than even the Huskers’ notoriously inept 2007 defense, which allowed 6.1 per play. The 2017 defense has allowed 5.4 yards per rush, worse than the 2007 crew’s 5.2 mark. Both units allowed 7.2 yards per pass.
Granted, the 2007 defense was in the fourth year of Kevin Cosgrove’s system. But back then, Nebraska played in the Big 12, which was known for wide-open and potent offenses, something of a contrast to the current Big Ten.
At any rate, Diaco this week is selling the notion that Nebraska can reverse its fortunes quickly, both as a program and defense. My interpretation is that’s a slightly different message than he sent two weeks ago, when he told reporters the defense will improve as players gain aptitude and depth of understanding in the new system. He said then he feels it needs a full cycle of strength and conditioning, skill development and “intellectual conditioning.”
He caused a stir two weeks ago when he said the level of tackling prowess he encountered in the spring was alarmingly deficient.
“It is a yearlong process and as I’ve said, it is a years process to get the defense built back to being great,” he said Nov. 7.
If he has indeed changed his tune slightly, it’s hard to blame him. He’s most likely staring at his last game at Nebraska, as speculation persists that Riley could be fired as soon as late Friday or early Saturday. Perhaps Diaco has hopes of retaining his position under the Huskers’ next head coach. Or maybe he’s doing damage control as he thinks about his coaching future.
At any rate, his message this week goes like this: In college football, there often isn’t much difference between what looks like a disaster — i.e., Nebraska’s 56-44 loss Saturday at Penn State in which the Huskers trailed 42-10 at halftime — and what looks great. He noted Ohio State’s impressive rise this season that preceded a collapse Nov. 4 at Iowa — a 55-24 decision that shocked everyone.
Nebraska surrendered 35 straight points to Penn State in the first half.
“You had a chance to see it last weekend, a unit relax,” he said of the Husker defense. “Even just a small (drop) in focus and energy, it doesn’t correlate directly to the production.”
Translation: Nebraska let up just a bit, and Penn State pounced in a big way.
“With just a slight lack of focus, a slight dip in energy, something less than everything you have — the bottom falls out,” Diaco said. “It doesn’t go down a little bit in correlation. It becomes very hard to do the work.”
In the next breath, Diaco insists the Nebraska defense can indeed get great quickly. He notes the wealth of returning experience — 18 of the team’s top 22 tacklers are eligible to return next season. In that group, there are seven juniors, six sophomores, four redshirt freshmen and a true freshman.
“There’s been a massive amount of reps for a lot — a ton — of young players, and they’re learning how to play, and they’re talented enough, and they’re smart enough, and eventually they’re going to be strong enough,” Diaco said. “Eventually, they’re going to be fundamentally sound enough, eventually they’ll be deeply entrenched in a system and understand it with great detail.”
He wants to make his point clear: It won’t take much more to get Nebraska’s program turned around.
“Because of its greatness, because of the place that it is — this is a very special football place,” he said. “Very special fans, very special supporters, very special infrastructure, very special interest nationally.”
He shifted the discussion back to his defense.
“There are things that need to happen, but they will happen,” he said. “As soon as that clicks up, even just a little bit, you’re going to see the kind of defense you want to see.”
He’s a fighter to the end. Seems like a positive way to remember him.