Scott Frost calls on his NFL experience as he aims to turn around the Cornhuskers' defense
Nebraska football head coach Scott Frost and his staff have been a bit cheeky following recent post-practice interviews. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander took a little shot at Bob Diaco for holding his microphone as opposed to having it clipped on when Diaco was in the same role. Frost himself shook off a question about hiring a consultant to assist in adjusting the Big Red’s tackling.
“They pay us good money to coach,” he said. “If we don’t know what we’re doing, they probably need a different coach.”
Frost does have a point, though and not only from a perspective of fiscal responsibility.
The team recently had a meeting devoted to the art of proper tackling technique, which is something the current roster badly needs a crash course in.
In 2016, Nebraska switched over to the style of rugby tackling popularized by Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll. The change didn't produce the intended results. The Huskers slipped from a national rank of 78th in tackles for a loss during the 2015 season, averaging a tick over 5.5 per game, to 85th with an average of 5.2.
While the Big Red’s defense was taken down by a proverbial “death by papercut” when it came to the running game in 2015, giving up just 37 running plays that covered 10-plus yards (third-fewest in the nation), rugby tackling caused that number to skyrocket to 72 the following season. Not only that, but the Huskers gave up 17 runs of 20-plus yards in Mike Riley’s first year versus 23 in his second. This tied Nebraska with the likes of Old Dominion and Central Michigan for a national rank of 101st.
In 2017, Diaco’s first and only year as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator, he threw out the rugby concept and started fresh. He would transition from the 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 scheme with concepts that were eventually lost in translation entirely. The result was a unit that had no idea what it was doing due to poor communication and it showed.
Diaco’s defense tallied slightly over three tackles for a loss per game while giving up just as many 10- and 20-yard gains on the ground as the year prior.
How is it that Frost can so confidently claim that his staff will be taking care of this issue?
Frost did have a brief stint in the NFL where he dabbled in quarterbacking, but would eventually find himself at safety. The road was a rough one for the newly-dubbed defensive back, but there was light at the end of the tunnel.
“I was a bad NFL tackler for five years of my NFL career until I got to Tampa and they taught us the right way.”
To determine what kind of tackling culture has set up shop in Lincoln, we must look back to the roots of Frost’s knowledge.
His teacher during his 2003 stay with the Buccaneers was none other than current Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. With six years of cumulative coaching experience at the college level, Tomlin came from Cincinnati as a receivers coach to work with then-head coach Tony Dungy’s secondary with an emphasis on the safeties.
“When I was down in Tampa that was such a special group, it was Monte Kiffin, and Mike Tomlin, and Rod Marinelli, and Joe Barry, and Raheem Morris, and those were the guys that talked me into coaching,” Frost said in a May 2016 interview with USA Today when he was still at UCF.
Current Illinois head coach Lovie Smith spoke about his work as a linebackers coach under Dungy during a 2011 interview with the Tampa Bay Times back when he was the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams.
“When I was there people always asked us, for example, why we tackled so well. And it was because we would teach tackling. We practiced it. All the time. Teaching fundamentals was what it was all about, and that’s what Tony [Dungy] wants in his coaches. He wants guys who are teachers.”
That teaching led to some eye-popping results. When Tomlin was with the Buccaneers, they led the NFL in total defense twice (2002, '05) while never ranking any lower than sixth. When Dungy’s crew won the Super Bowl one year prior to Frost’s arrival, the defense tallied a record five interceptions in their dominating victory over Oakland, returning three of the picks for touchdowns.
There is no need for outside consultation when the knowledge is already inside the head man’s noggin. It’s no coincidence that this is the reason for the way things are run in Lincoln these days. Frost has seen so many offensive and defensive concepts while playing for and coaching under so many big names that he has a wealth of resources.
By tapping into Tomlin’s one-on-one work not to mention the litany of well-known coaches around him during his brief stay with Tampa Bay, Frost can break down the most basic elements of tackling that work well at the college level.
Sure, Carroll’s Legion of Boom did damage with rugby tackling back in the day, but the Seahawks' once-vaunted secondary has been dismantled. However, fundamentals should never go out of style and their absence from the Nebraska football program appears to be what’s hitting its defensive performance the most.
(Top photo courtesy of www.huskers.com)