LINCOLN — The book on recovering fumbles is that it’s somewhat tied to luck. Whether it’s your team’s fumble or an opponent’s, the football bounces in ways only gravity controls, and whatever taped-up, mangled hands grab the ball do so out of good fortune. Right place, right time.
Nebraska’s new defensive coordinator, Erik Chinander, chooses to practice the art of fumble recovery anyway.
Once a week this season, Central Florida’s defense engaged in what Chinander called a “city/country drill.”
“ ‘City’ is when there’s a lot of people around, so you need to cradle that thing and get on the ball,” Chinander said in one of UCF’s “Film Room” videos that feature him and offensive coordinator Troy Walters breaking down the previous game. “ ‘Country’ is when you’re wide open out in the country — where I’m from — and that ball’s bouncing around, and you can scoop and score.”
From Allison, Iowa, Chinander likes takeaways, aggressive tackles and defenders attacking the offense. At UCF, which finished 12-0 and won the American Athletic Conference title, his defense gave up big yards and big points in its last two games. Forty-two points and 653 yards to South Florida. Fifty-five points and 753 yards to Memphis.
If those two games were Husker fans’ only glimpse of UCF’s defense, they should at least remember this.
UCF’s last defensive play in each game was a takeaway.
Leading 49-42 against USF, it was a fumble recovery. UCF safety Richie Grant dislodged the ball with his right hand. Chinander called it a “bicep punch” in the “Film Room” feature.
“And then we got a nice ‘city ball’ recovery,” Chinander said. “We had five guys around the ball and their guys are still comin’.”
That play, Chinander said, “defined the night” against USF.
“We went out on the field this year — every last drive — with the mentality of that ‘we’re not going out there to not lose, we’re going out there to win,’ ” Chinander said. “We’re going to continue to take chances.”
Like Chinander did in 2010, when he left a six-year assistant job at Northern Iowa for an intern job at Oregon.
He had a friend on the Ducks’ staff. A guy named Scott Frost.
Chinander lived with Frost when the two worked at Northern Iowa. They’d live together again that first year at Oregon when Chinander’s wife, Megan, stayed in Iowa.
Chinander took the risk of his career. Then-Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti was impressed by that. He was more impressed when Chinander, a walk-on offensive lineman at Iowa who coached tight ends at UNI, took so quickly to helping the Ducks’ defense.
“He picked things up fast,” said Aliotti, who was Oregon’s defensive coordinator for 17 years. “He got it. He related it well to players. Erik did any and everything I gave him do, and it was always done quickly and correctly. Kind of like John Wooden: Be quick, but don’t hurry.”
Though Chip Kelly’s offenses received most of the publicity, Aliotti’s defenses — which Aliotti joked “kicked the dog” out of Kelly’s offenses in practice — were a key part of Oregon’s success. He built his system — a hybrid 4-3/3-4 system — on three principles.
“Tackling, taking the ball away, unbelievable technique,” Aliotti said.
Aliotti wanted the Ducks to average three takeaways per game. In 2010, Oregon nearly did, with 37. That ranked No. 2 nationally. The Ducks peaked in 2012 with 40, which led all FBS teams.
By then, Chinander was in his last year as an Oregon graduate assistant. Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles. Chinander went with him to coach the defensive line. After two years in Philly, Chinander returned to Oregon to coach outside linebackers. He joined Frost’s UCF staff in 2016.
Chinander had never been a coordinator, yet Frost trusted him to run the defense.
“Erik’s one of the smartest football coaches I’ve been around,” Frost said at a UCF press conference in January 2016. “I really feel like I got as good a guy from Oregon’s staff as I possibly could have. I was really comfortable with him and familiar with him.
“He’s got so much character and so much intelligence. In my experience, as a football coach, if you’re a smart guy, you can figure out the problems when they arise.”
At the time, Chinander told reporters he’d plot an aggressive defense, focused on sacks and takeaways. In 2015, 0-12 UCF had one of the nation’s worst defenses, giving up 37.7 points and 464.1 yards per game. In an offense-happy AAC, both numbers ranked 10th out of 12 teams.
In 2016 — Frost and Chinander’s first year — UCF’s defense shaved those down to 24.6 points and 370.3 yards per game. The Knights logged 22 more sacks and 13 more takeaways. Their opponents’ third-down conversion rate went from 47.46 percent to 28.96 percent. UCF finished 6-7, despite an offense that gained 350.8 yards per game.
This season, UCF rolled up 540.4 yards per game. It scored 49.4 points per game and had 44 plays of 30 yards or more. Drives were over in a blink, and UCF’s defense was back on the field.
Still, the Knights’ points per game allowed (25.2) was 0.8 more than 2016, and it’s only a fraction more than College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma (25.0), which plays in the similarly high-flying Big 12. UCF gave up fewer points per game in league play than OU did, as well.
UCF’s 29 takeaways are fifth nationally. That includes 11 fumble recoveries, tied for 14th nationally.
After the Peach Bowl — a tall task against Auburn’s no-huddle, fast-paced offense — Chinander takes over a Husker defense that ranked last in the Big Ten in yards per game allowed and 13th in points per game. It’s every bit as rough as the fix-it job he faced at UCF.
But Aliotti thinks Chinander is up for the challenge. Good football mind, good guy.
“I’d ask him what he thought sometimes because he had a sharp defensive mind, and as a defensive coordinator, you’ve got to be able to ask everybody in the room,” Aliotti said. “When you do that, it goes a long way, and it gives people ownership, when they have a voice.”