New Husker defensive coordinator Erik Chinander gives players ownership of team by embracing input

ATLANTA — Tre Neal was impressed when his new defensive coordinator arrived at Central Florida in December 2015 and didn’t watch video of players from the 0-12 season. The safety was interested in the aggressive play-calling the coach spoke about.

But the first time he thought every UCF defender fully believed in Erik Chinander came during a 51-14 loss at Michigan in their second game together.

Now a 38-year-old assistant heading to Nebraska, Chinander has as many sayings for his players as ways to pressure a quarterback: Do your one-11th. Be fast and fierce. Desire to excel and don’t fear failure.

On this day, Chinander was telling players ahead of time what Michigan would do. Then it happened over and over.

“We’re like, ‘Holy smokes, this guy is a genuis,’ ” Neal said Saturday. “I think that’s when people started buying in. Once he started talking about football to me, I understood it.”

Life on the other side of the ball from the nation’s highest-scoring offense isn’t always statistically glamorous. Chinander knows UCF’s scoring defense (51st, 25.2 points per game), total defense (96th, 428.6 yards allowed per game) and sacks (97th, 21) are underwhelming. Mental mistakes will happen, especially with seven new starters.

But if the unit can force a few stops and a few takeaways — it had 26 last year (tied for 18th nationally) and 29 (tied for fifth) this fall — Scott Frost’s friend since their days at Northern Iowa in the late 2000s is happy.

“If I was worried about self-promoting me, then you’d leave this deal and you’d go to a team that’s going to run the ball 50 times,” Chinander said. “But I love the exciting pace of our game. I love Coach Frost. I love the offense. I love being in some shootouts sometimes.”

For players, the most attractive part of working in Chinander’s defense is the shared equity in the product. The coach asks what they see between every drive and often adjusts based on their suggestions — even if they didn’t practice an idea that week. He stacks on new concepts during game-week preparation, but will remove them if players don’t feel comfortable with them. Everyone works together without “boss” or “subordinate” status.

“I wasn’t done like that until they got here,” senior defensive lineman Jamiyus Pittman said. “That’s what made me realize these are special coaches.”

Chinander said he won’t issue a call during a game. His scheme is set around players adjusting — based on splits of receivers or formations or alignments. Because players are more confident in what they are doing, the result is a motivation to learn and faster movement.

“A lot of times when it’s only me and I just call it in and something doesn’t work — ‘Oh that was a crappy call. Coach put us in a crappy position,’ ” Chinander said. “When we all have an equal say, when we’re all pulling the rope in the same direction, it’s easy to get things fixed. So I like the kids to have a lot of ownership.”

But, oh, some of those Chinander schemes.

Senior inside linebacker Chequan Burkett laughs thinking of the many times assistants Barrett Ruud and Jovan Dewitt would come into position meetings excited about a game plan. The general idea is to attack opponents’ weaknesses, but in a disguised way with shifts and stances. Don’t reveal the point of attack until the last moment.

Beyond that, stop what an opponent does best and create discomfort. In the American Athletic Conference, that often meant thwarting run-pass options and vertical routes. In the Big Ten, Chinander said it will mean stopping the run. In general, it means preventing big plays.

Neal said the defensive coordinator is well versed enough in offensive-line protections that he can explain them for all of his defenders to understand. During one of the team’s first meetings last season, the defensive back couldn’t believe the kind of creativity coming from the former Oregon linebackers coach (2014-15) and Philadelphia Eagles defensive line assistant (2013).

“He had some blitzes that I had never seen in my life before,” Neal said. “It was where guys were standing up, guys were dropping, guys were coming full speed. I had never been part of somewhere where safeties blitz, and he has plenty of safety blitzes. He’s just like, ‘You guys gotta wait on it; we’re going to set it up and you guys get ready to blitz.’

“Corners blitz, safeties blitz, everybody blitzes on the field and I think that’s one of the craziest things to me.”

Players say Chinander doesn’t yell during games. He doesn’t care about anyone’s past recruiting stars. During “unity meetings” before games, he’s known for telling stories.

The one that sticks with Burkett is about a group tasked with journeying a certain distance to receive a scarf that unrolls to the ground. There are other shorter scarves scattered along the way, and some took the opportunity for a shortcut. Those who went the full distance, though, earned a greater reward.

“We’re not trying to stop midway through the season,” Burkett said. “Even with this game, we’re not trying to stop here and make this our final destination. We still got to keep pushing and get that longest scarf and bring it back to Coach, bring it back to our team.”

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