Can Tony White’s defensive system work for Nebraska football in Year 1?

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LINCOLN, Neb. — An “incident,” to use Tony White’s description, occurred during this first week of preseason camp at Nebraska. One of his defenders got caught thinking too much in practice.

He “was trying to be correct vs. playing fast,” White said.

The first-year defensive coordinator made sure that the player involved knew the ramifications. That mistake in a few weeks might lead to an undesirable outcome for the defense. Maybe a touchdown. And worst of all, it’s avoidable.

In these early stages of defensive installation, White is focused on what the Huskers can control — effort, energy and the speed of play. A quest for perfection will come later.

“I just care that you let loose,” he said. “Full go, full tilt. I’m not worried about a mistake.”

The new Nebraska defensive system, under the direction of the 44-year-old White, is all about attitude. It requires an attacking, aggressive, fearless mentality. It’s designed more to disrupt and create havoc than to methodically slow an offense.

“We’re trying to concentrate on the operation,” White said, “that we know what our identity is, how we’re supposed to act.”

Defensively, Nebraska in 2023 figures to show various looks and personnel groupings, perhaps more than at any time during the Huskers’ 12 years in the Big Ten. A key aim of White’s system? To keep an opponent off balance. At its best, his defense is almost positionless, featuring interchangeable athleticism at each level.

“It’s kind of just, ‘See ball, get ball,’” lineman Ty Robinson said.


Ty Robinson (99) and the Nebraska football team open their season Aug. 31 at Minnesota. (Dylan Widger / USA Today)

The foundation is a 3-3-5 alignment. And it’s a gamble.

While the defensive system has gained acceptance since White played in it as a linebacker at UCLA 25 years ago, it’s largely unproven in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten. Michigan scored 45 points and gained 528 yards against TCU’s 3-3-5 in a College Football Playoff semifinal last season, but the Horned Frogs made enough plays, including several on defense, to win the game.

Can the Huskers gain a strong enough understanding of the system to make gains over last season, when interim defensive coordinator Bill Busch used elements of the 3-3-5 to guide the Nebraska defense from a poor opening stretch of games to a series of solid performances?

The Blackshirts allowed 5.48 yards per play for the season, 59th nationally. Syracuse, where White spent the past three years as defensive coordinator, jumped 78 spots in his time there to rank 16th nationally in yards per play allowed at 4.91 in 2022.

Nebraska last surrendered fewer than 5 yards per play in 2010. Several elements in play for the Huskers this year appear to place White in a position to succeed.


Let’s start with linebacker MJ Sherman. He carries a chip on his shoulder, no doubt left over from his time at Georgia. Sherman, a former four-star prospect out of Baltimore who played primarily on special teams in three seasons with the Bulldogs, delivered a jovial attitude in spring practice after his transfer to Nebraska.

He’s all business in camp.

“My feet are pretty sunk in the sand right now,” Sherman said Tuesday. “I’m just here to be a better leader, be a better teammate and propel my game.”

For the Huskers accustomed to losing, Sherman’s influence is essential.

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“We’re talented,” said linebacker Luke Reimer, a three-year starter who needs 98 tackles this year to finish second on the career chart at Nebraska. “We’re competitive with these teams. We’re not winning because we’re not being a team. We’re not collaborating.”

Nebraska players need to hear that truth, Reimer said. Sherman isn’t afraid to speak it — and to live it. In the first 48 hours of camp, Sherman filled five pages of a notebook with intel gained in the meeting rooms.

“Our mantra is (to get) 1 percent better every day,” he said. “We don’t waste time sitting back and just waiting for August. That’s when the stuff starts to hit the fan.”

Sherman also plays a key position, Jack linebacker. Consider it a junction point in White’s scheme between the defensive line and linebacker levels. Sherman flashed his pass-rushing skills in the spring. That Nebraska in this first year with the 3-3-5 found a fit like him rates as fortunate.

Florida transfer Chief Borders, Jimari Butler and true freshman Maverick Noonan are also working at the Jack linebacker spot.

Between the linebacker and secondary levels, another hybrid spot, rover, carries equal importance. Together, the production that Nebraska gets from the two spots serves as a barometer for the effectiveness of the defensive scheme transition.

When the 3-3-5 is working, the Jack linebacker and rover make plays.

Isaac Gifford, a returning eight-game starter in the secondary, leads the candidates at rover. Myles Farmer, once expected to compete for time at the spot, entered the transfer portal Wednesday after Nebraska suspended him before the start of camp.

With Farmer out, true freshman Eric Fields worked early in camp at rover. The inclusion of Fields, who’s wired to play a physical style, indicates that the Huskers are hunting for players at the spot who bring a linebacker mentality.

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Tony White spent three seasons at Syracuse before being hired by Nebraska this offseason. (Mitch Sherman / The Athletic)

When White wrapped three hours of practice Tuesday, sweat had soaked through his T-shirt and the gray pullover he wore on top of it. The Nebraska coaches aren’t just teaching. Under instruction from coach Matt Rhule, they’re running to the ball behind the Huskers on defense.

Players notice their efforts. Rhule holds his staff to a high standard, defensive end Blaise Gunnerson said. White does the same with his defensive coaches.

“When it’s time to work, it’s time to work,” Gunnerson said.

For Rhule, the veteran Huskers on defense provide him with confidence. He points to Nick Henrich, an 18-game starter during the past three years who’s back from a knee injury that cut short his season after five games in 2022.

“I’ll stop and look at guys like Nick, who are overcoming and doing everything right,” Rhule said. “ If you ask the team who leads who they trust, they’re all going to say Nick.

“He’s got a triumphant spirit. I know he inspires guys.”

Ultimately, White said, the responsibility falls on the older defenders to absorb what he’s teaching and pass it to teammates. White talks all day about “dominant contact,” a term heard often last season, and “Husker speed.” He’s throwing a heavy load at the defensive players.

Nebraska owes the veterans on this team, who’ve never won here, a chance to make the most of this season.

“I’d rather cut it back than not have enough (installed),” White said.

No assurance exists that White’s system will work, especially in this first season. But if the Huskers are going to miss a mark defensively, they’re intent to miss at full speed.

“If we all put our heads into the game plan, we all buy into the program and our culture, (the defense) can be very, very good,” Sherman said. “We got a whole bunch of athletes on the team. Everything just relies on discipline and effort.”

(Top photo of Luke Reimer: Steven Branscombe / Getty Images)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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