It wasn’t pressure, exactly, that Nebraska’s defense felt heading into Saturday’s Red-White Spring Game at Memorial Stadium. Pressure is for October and November. For real fourth quarters and one-possession games and make-or-break third downs.
Certainly, though, guys like Mohamed Barry and Khalil Davis felt, well, something, when they took the field in front of 85,000-plus.
Their group’s been maligned for two years and plenty of reason for skepticism remains. It’s just a spring game, but after weeks of talk about how the Blackshirts have made real strides and considering the confidence which seems to be budding with the current group, laying an egg on the last day of spring ball would have at least been a little disheartening.
“We just came out to show everybody what we’ve been doing and what we’ve been working on all spring,” said Davis, one of five seniors on the NU defensive line. “Hopefully they loved it.”
His head coach, at the very least, appreciated what he saw from Erik Chinander’s group Saturday and, more importantly, over the past six weeks.
“I wouldn’t say it surprised me how well the defense did. I was pleased. Maybe more pleased than I had expected to be,” Frost said. “They got a lot better. They played freer. They ran around a lot better. I think almost position by position, I saw improvement.”
Rarely do entire units transform overnight, and that’s not the expectation for Nebraska’s defense. The group made improvements production-wise almost across the board from 2017 to 2018 and still finished No. 88 in the nation at 31.2 points per game allowed and No. 75 in yards per play allowed (5.81). In the areas that NU’s players and coaches consider critical, though, they believe the progress is real.
“We’re just a smarter football team and a smarter defense and that’s going to pay us dividends this season,” Barry said.
“The teams I've played on that were really good had a lot of leaders in older guys, but on this defense there's leadership all around,” Oklahoma State graduate transfer defensive lineman Darrion Daniels added. “We've got a lot of young guys holding a lot of older guys accountable and the same vice-versa. I feel like there's a really good balance of everybody keeping everybody right."
Now comes the critical next phase for a group that believes it’s on the right track but knows it has much further to go. The players will finish their semester over the coming weeks, have some down time in May and report back to begin summer conditioning and summer classes around Memorial Day.
“The thing now is we have to play fast and we have to play consistently, just like that, every time we hit the field,” Barry said. “We have to come out on the field thinking that we want to be the best defense in the Big Ten. That’s where it’s at now. We’ve got so much better throughout the spring and we know we can be a great defense and now every time we hit that field, we have to feel that way.
“When it comes to the first game here, we have to show that. That’s what’s really the goal.”
There are caveats and considerations all over the place. NU must find depth and production at linebacker. The secondary, even with a pair of cornerbacks to feel good about, has questions still to be sorted out. The defensive line is long on experience but has never had one of its players earn all-conference recognition.
Add to that Frost’s sentiment Saturday that the offense is almost always behind the defense in his experience this time of year.
But confidence seemingly can’t hurt, and Barry certainly isn’t short of it as he leads the Blackshirts into a critical three-and-a-half months before preseason camp starts.
“It’s the Big Ten and it’s Nebraska, the defensive records we have here are basically untouchable,” he said. “There’s a lot of great defenders that came through here and when the light is off the Blackshirts a little bit, that makes you energized and ready to prove that, hey, this is a defensive program.
“That’s what we’re trying to do come the season.”