Blackshirts taking on identity of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, as players, staff work to match his energy

Blackshirts taking on identity of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, as players, staff work to match his energy
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s office overlooks the Huskers’ expansive weight room so, in theory, Diaco could step to the window to catch a glimpse of the workouts below. Diaco said in a summer interview that he didn’t care to do so — there was enough of his own work to keep him busy.

But Diaco’s teaching methods had already burrowed their way into the minds of Husker players to the point where, when the team did summer conditioning drills that coaches couldn’t attend, defenders acted like Diaco was there anyway.

“We wouldn’t slack,” defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun said. “We always stood up when we were tired. There was no failure in body language. We always pushed our best. Because we know how this defense is going to be run.”

The intense energy and enthusiasm that marked spring camp appear to have carried over to training camp. Whether Nebraska sustains it for a full month — the Huskers don’t kick off against Arkansas State for 32 days — is another question, but Diaco, ditching the gray sweatsuit for a black ensemble, sees total buy-in three days into camp.

NU’s defense, a perpetual Achilles’ heel since the program joined the Big Ten, needs all the buy-in it can get.

“The guys are on fire for what they’re doing, it’s very important to them, and it’s exciting,” Diaco said.

Diaco’s voice was hoarse. Trent Bray had a raspy voice, too. Defensive line coach John Parrella lost his entirely on day two.

“He thought it would come back today, and it was still gone,” defensive end Carlos Davis said of Parrella.

The defense as a whole rarely slows for a minute. Players jog to spots. Coaches are demonstrative. On Sunday, when NU’s defense started with its up-down warm-up drill, Parrella ran it.

Diaco wants his players thinking call-to-call, drill-to-drill, practice-to-practice. He wants them to shut out the big picture and focus on communication. He talks of players understanding his “language” and behavior being “habitized” to the point where it becomes second nature.

“If every single person on the unit, including the coaches, improves 0.001 percent each day, how can anybody be upset with that?” Diaco said. “Hopefully I did a better job today and the fourth-string boundary corner did a better job today and the starting mike linebacker did a better job today.”

He’s brought in a consultant, former head coach and defensive coordinator Gary Darnell, to help examine the big picture and serve as a sounding board.

Darnell, who’s collecting a $110,000 fee to help the Huskers’ defense, was once Diaco’s boss during his last year as head coach at Western Michigan in 2004. Darnell and Diaco remained close, even after Darnell formally retired after his final two seasons as Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator in the mid-2000s.

Diaco said he hired Darnell for his experience and his familiarity with several kind of defenses; Darnell mentored TCU coach Gary Patterson and others.

“He can cycle back through his Rolodex of information to the middle 1970s and think about something that might have hurt or helped,” Diaco said. “It’s like having an unabridged dictionary there.”

Darnell is the seasoning on the Huskers’ defensive staff, which is otherwise one of the youngest in recent Husker history. The oldest full-time assistant is Parrella at 47. All five coaches — Parrella, Diaco, Bray, safeties coach Scott Booker and cornerbacks coach Donte Williams — played college football in the last 25 years. All are in something close to playing shape, too.

Perhaps that’s why, when asked about Nebraska’s summer conditioning regimen — which players have said was much harder than previous years — Diaco shrugged it off.

“That’s like a prerequisite to being at this level,” Diaco said. “Every team trains hard.”

Joshua Kalu staying at safety where Bob Diaco believes he can become one of nation’s best

LINCOLN — Joshua Kalu didn’t play safety at Nebraska until spring camp. For one season under coach Bo Pelini and two under former defensive coordinator Mark Banker, he was a steady-if-unspectacular cornerback whose best accolade was an honorable mention All-Big Ten nod in 2015.

New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is so certain Kalu has found the right position at safety that, after Tuesday’s practice, the coach offered rare, major praise.

“He would be a very, very good corner, maybe even a great corner, but in my mind there’s no doubt: He is and/or will be one of the best safeties in the country, if not the very best safety in the country,” Diaco said.

So the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Kalu isn’t moving from the spot, even though NU’s best cornerback, Chris Jones, is out for at least two months — and perhaps the whole season — after knee surgery. NU will go with two sophomores — Lamar Jackson and Eric Lee— at cornerback.

They’ve combined for two starts. Kalu has 28 starts at corner and five career interceptions.

But Diaco noted that Kalu’s size, speed and instincts are a “natural” fit for safety. Diaco’s defense also asks a lot of its safeties, so even though NU has two safeties who have started games — Antonio Reed and Kieron Williams — Kalu jumped ahead of them and will stay at his new spot.

“The safeties are really premier positions in our defense,” Diaco said. “So in our defensive system, it’s a big, big deal to have great safety play.”

When safeties talk in Diaco’s system, their teammates have to listen. Kalu is a “demonstrative” communicator, Diaco said.

Kalu’s new position coach, Scott Booker, agreed.

“He’s a natural-born leader,” Booker said. “He’s a guy that guys follow. And, as a senior, you see guys with that urgency. … He’s making sure whatever needs to be said doesn’t go unsaid.”

As Kalu remains at safety, it means Jackson, Lee and Dicaprio Bootle have to come along quickly. Another player to watch may be Creighton Prep walk-on Jeremiah Stovall, who worked with the No. 2 defense on Sunday.

Jackson was the highest-ranked recruit in NU’s 2016 class. Lee was the highest-ranked recruit in NU’s 2015 class.

“Chris defended almost 500 passes last year,” Diaco said. “I’m not sure how many Lamar (defended) or Eric or Dicaprio Bootle or any of those guys. But they’re confident, they’re excited, they’re trying hard and we’re going to have ultimate faith in them. It’s going to be fun. Next man in.”

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