There are high expectations for Nebraska football in year two of the Scott Frost era.
Frost’s fast and cutting-edge offense, led by sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez, was the main reason for these preseason expectations, and for good reason. The offense helped the Huskers compete with the best of the best in the Big Ten Conference last season, but struggles on defense and special teams led them to a 4-8 record.
If Nebraska plans to compete for a division title this fall, it will take a strong performance from a defense that showed signs of improvement in the latter half of the 2018 season.
One game into the 2019 season, the roles from last year look reversed, as Nebraska’s defense seems significantly improved while the offense fizzled. The coaching staff spoke highly of the defense’s progress throughout the offseason, and they started the season by forcing five turnovers and scoring two touchdowns to carry the team to a 35-21 win over South Alabama.
A key reason for Nebraska’s defensive progress has been experience, with seven returning starters back from last season. With expectations for the unit continuing to rise, senior linebacker and team captain Mohamed Barry is focused on making sure his team exceeds the hype.
“We underachieved the last several years, and everyone knows it,” Barry said at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago back in July. “This is Nebraska. The fanbase here is used to winning championships. I know it’s a drought right now. We are ready to turn it all the way around, not in talk, in action — in how we play week in and week out.”
Barry has been a significant contributor for Nebraska in two of its worst seasons in program history, bringing a constant jolt of energy to a defensive unit that otherwise struggled. When defensive coordinator Erik Chinander took over last year, Barry thrived in the more aggressive scheme.
In his junior year, Barry finished with 112 tackles, including 11 tackles for loss and two sacks. More importantly, his presence drew extra attention from opposing offenses, creating opportunities for the rest of the linebackers and secondary. While Barry only had two sacks, the rest of the linebacking corps picked up 15.5 sacks.
Now as a captain, Barry is trying to make the entire team better. That includes his star sophomore quarterback.
“I told him [Martinez] after the season that I don’t know a national championship team where the quarterback isn’t a strong leader,” Barry said.
Barry seems to work best with motivation during practices, where he and his defensive teammates challenge the young offense both mentally and physically. Husker coaches said the defense dominated the offense at times during spring and fall camps and would talk trash to them while doing it.
“Practice is not only about getting yourself better; you also want to get your offense better,” Barry said. “Whatever I can do to make him [Martinez] feel like this is the most annoying, if he can feel that way then I know that I’m doing my job. I’m trying to get my defense, myself and the offense better.”
After a week one victory that left fans and media impressed with the defense and shocked by a struggling offense, Barry knows that both have plenty of work to do in order to become elite.
“It was a pretty good showing by the defense,” Barry said Monday following the win. “We felt like we could have done a lot of things better. Communication was one of them. First game communication of people training their ears and also people understanding they have to be demonstrative when they are giving out their calls and stuff like that. And then just first game tackling. You don’t go live a lot in practice, so just first game tackling and really that is it, I think.”
Barry said the offense looked more focused and executed better in their first session following the win but noted neither unit is close to its potential.
“I think we had a better Monday practice than we had last week, and that is great,” Barry said. “Again, we didn’t play our best football. That was not our best football. Every week we try and better ourselves. There is going to come a game where you will see our best football and just know that Monday, no matter how good it was — it wasn’t our best football. We can’t get complacent off of that because we could get better.”
As the schedule gets tougher, Barry hopes to see continuous improvement from his team. At media days, he said it’s most important for Nebraska to stop the run. He believes if they can do that, the team can achieve the lofty goal they set for themselves during the offseason.
“We want to be in Indianapolis; we want to win that game,” Barry said back in July. “I believe in my teammates, I believe in my coaches and that’s why I’m so confident. I think we’re ready, but it’s up to us to prove that.”