LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive players had just finished a morning run when Bob Diaco first addressed them. This was January, after a long, emotional season that ended with a thud.
Diaco swept away the sleepiness. The notepads came out. Players sat up and moved to the edge of their seats.
“Everybody was kind of in shock, honestly,” linebacker Luke Gifford said.
Chris Weber, a linebacker and captain, remembered the NU coordinator’s energy and confidence. Diaco knew what he wanted and communicated his expectations frankly. There are only so many phrases one can use in an introductory speech, but Weber was excited by how Diaco talked, the vibe he emitted. The certitude of his approach. The totality of his vision.
“From the ground up,” Weber said.
The change agent in coach Mike Riley’s mild-mannered, congenial football administration, Diaco has been an unqualified hit with defenders, who in turn have given NU’s offense enough fits in practice that wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El called the defense “difficult” and “annoying.”
“It will be fun to watch them do what they do best,” Pierson-El said.
Though the Blackshirts have yet to play a game, players and Riley have praised Diaco’s talent for teaching complex concepts in a way players can quickly grasp and apply. Diaco’s not just a try-hard guy running around the practice field, smacking shoulder pads and asking for more violence. He’s installed multiple defenses — a 3-4 fans haven’t seen and a 4-2-5 scheme they saw in the spring game — in nine months.
“This is a dynamic, prestigious university and we’d like to think our class is the best class they go to all day,” Diaco said. “We try to set things up with that level of detail and professionalism.”
After that, Diaco was cagey. With reporters, he routinely skirts around details with rhetorical detours. In this case, he declined to elaborate on his teaching methods.
“Unique to our own intellectual property,” Diaco explained.
Players are more forthcoming, but it’s important to note that, underneath all of what Diaco’s done, is the how. His will. His energy. How players feed off it. It may not translate to the NFL, and Diaco was just 11-26 as head coach at Connecticut. But Husker players believe in him.
“Wow, this guy’s for real,” Gifford recalled thinking after the first meeting. “It was going to change around here. And it did.”
Making the switch smooth
The 3-4 defense Diaco runs tends to favor certain body types at certain positions. Big defensive linemen who can control two gaps on either side of an offensive lineman. Heavy-hitting, bigger inside linebackers who play “downhill” toward the line of scrimmage against the run. Rangy, versatile outside linebackers — the taller and longer they are without losing agility to cover receivers or tight ends, the better.
“There’s a profile in the 3-4 defense as there is in every defense, but (Diaco) has a very specific idea of what the profile of a guy looks like at each position,” Riley said.
So, naturally, some players had to move around. Gifford, a safety three years ago, moved to an overhang outside linebacker “Dog” spot near the line of scrimmage. Alex Davis moved from defensive end to the “Cat” outside linebacker. Joshua Kalu moved from corner to safety, which Diaco believes is Kalu’s “natural” position.
What impressed Riley was Diaco’s admonition that players own those new roles.
“Bob does a great job of painting a picture for a player,” Riley said. “There’s a ton of emphasis placed on how to play. ‘This is your position; this is what you have to do.’ ”
Gifford, a career reserve, bloomed with the position switch.
“Playing the best football I’ve ever seen him play,” Riley said.
Gifford said he’s liked the personal development but, on top of that, Diaco “compartmentalizes” the defenses in ways that make a player’s job understandable. Certain duties carry over from call to call, and Diaco groups together those functions, and builds from there.
“I wouldn’t say it’s easy to learn — there are so many different combinations we do — but I think just being able to put it in categories helped a lot,” Gifford said.
During practice, Diaco was seen by reporters teaching right on the spot — both praise and critique — sometimes crouching before players so he could get in their eye line. He’d ask for attention from players on the sideline; they’d say “TBD!” any time the ball was on the ground, even for an incomplete pass.
After practices, Diaco had the team watch film together.
“Each day after practices, we’ll have cut-ups of good and bad and we learn from situations in practice,” cornerback Lamar Jackson said. “Each person gets to see what people missed everywhere. So you know everyone’s job by the end of the period. You get the see the mistakes and hear the corrections day by day. It’s good. In order to be good, it’s great to know what’s going on around you.”
Riley likes Diaco’s expertise in teaching the right way to play. It reminds Riley of his first job coaching college football at Linfield College in Oregon. His boss, Ad Rutschman, won three NAIA national titles, and Riley described him as a coach “adamant” that his staff teach football technique.
“That appears to me to be what has taken place with our team, each guy, the repetition of what they do, how they have to play. It’s been a fun process to watch.”
Gifford has had fun playing in the system, too. Empowering. A “whole other level of swag.”
“We noticed from the beginning that, when we ran things right and did it the right way, we made plays,” Gifford said. “It worked. When you start seeing results, it really changes the way you go about your work and how driven you are to get after it.”
In a summer interview, Diaco said players need time to reach a “mastery” level of their job, and, this week, he reiterated that a game against Arkansas State will be more valuable than all of the practices so far. Diaco said he’s constantly working on his own teaching process, too — on Tuesday alone, he said, he thought of a “half-dozen things” he could have taught better in practice.
Behind the rhetoric and methods, there is Diaco’s mindset. The players gain energy from it — they like it and occasionally shake their head over just how intense it is — but Diaco frames it as a kind of vigilance that bleeds over into everyday life. He’s wary of basic questions that require him to “co-sign” their premise. He plans out each detail. Always hyper-aware.
“We should feel under attack constantly — of being chased constantly,” Diaco said. “Surely I’m not going to decelerate and let someone catch us.”
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