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Former Blackshirt Ralph Brown enthused about Huskers’ 3-4 transition

As a two-time first team All-Big 12 Selection and 1999 consensus All-American, Ralph Brown is very familiar with what Nebraska’s defense is currently going through. At one point during his 10-year NFL career, he had to adjust to the 3-4 defense after living comfortably in the 4-3 during his time at Nebraska along with the first half of his professional days with the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings.

Once Brown signed on with the Cleveland Browns in 2006 and the Arizona Cardinals from 2007-2009, he found himself in a 3-4 scheme where things didn’t change much for him in terms of coverages, but he had a great time being part of a scheme that got into the opposing offense’s head so often. “You can disguise a little bit better. You can mess with your front in terms of movement, people standing up, putting their hands in the dirt to come off the edge and different things of that nature,” he said.

Brown went on to say he enjoyed the 3-4 more than the scheme he played in during his college days and the front half of his NFL career. Not to say that he didn’t have fun doing his thing with the New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings. As he pointed out, even with four defensive linemen in the game, athletes will be athletes and can always be disruptive such as Brian Urlacher and the Bears under Lovie Smith.

He repeatedly emphasized that like in any defense, the linemen’s production in the 3-4 is key. “If your three guys in the middle can hold it down, they don’t have to be tremendously disruptive, they just have to do their job.”

If that happens, Brown says, the linebackers can scramble the offensive linemen’s brains by messing up their number counts. They’re aware that not only do they have to account for the large bodies directly across from them looking to plug any holes, but they have to warn where any potential danger is coming from on the back end. If that sounds difficult to accomplish, Brown assures that’s because it is.

“Offensive linemen don’t like to deal with athletes when it comes to blocking especially when it comes to linebackers, maybe hybrid safety-type guys that are playing at the linebacker positions. These guys are trying to pin their ears back and get to the quarterback. When you have a lot of stunts and twists with guys that are fast, it’s hard for offensive linemen to react and pick these guys up,” he said.

When it comes to running the scheme that Bob Diaco is bringing to Lincoln, Brown made it known that you’d better be a fan of hitting the books because of the increased number of moving parts to the defense. “There’s a lot more studying and understanding. It’s just one more linebacker and one less lineman, but it can be complicated if you don’t really put the time in and understand the complexity of what the 3-4 is designed to do.”

He doesn’t know if the switch will necessarily cause the Blackshirts to be an immediate force in the Big Ten, but much like any good defense, success starts up front. Brown also points to the common denominators of all elite teams when it comes to how good the defense can eventually become.

“Defense has to do with how good are your athletes are and how well they do their jobs, how passionate they are, how their ball pursuit is. Does everyone give 100 percent?”

Long story short: Big players make big plays in big games. A tale as old as time.

Brown thinks that one guy who may end up being an MVP in the new scheme is defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun. “With his job on that defensive line, he can make a lot of plays especially with the season he’s coming off of last year. Considering how he plays the game, all of the movement with the linebackers and things of that nature, I think he can get some sacks. I think he’ll be a good run stopper and it could be fun for him this year.”

Even if Diaco doesn’t have 11 five-star recruits starting come September 2, Brown feels he can scheme around deficiencies. “We may think there are weaknesses in a certain area, but Diaco may say, ‘Hey look, I know how to cover these things up. I know how to make adjustments throughout the course of a ballgame.’”

Speaking of Diaco, you can count Brown as one of the faithful that can’t wait to see what Nebraska’s intense defensive coordinator immediately puts on the field.

“I can’t wait. I like defensive coordinators who are energetic and they can get their guys to believe in themselves and give 100 percent on every play. [Nebraska’s] missed that in past years. This is what the Huskers need. It’s great when you can have a former head coach on your staff. That’s what [Nick] Saban was doing. He was getting all of these guys who were getting fired as head coaches. There are more brains, there’s more knowledge, there’s more experience. It seems like Coach Riley is on his way making the right decisions in Lincoln right now.”

While the defense itself is an unknown heading into the 2017 season, Brown has a theory about how the Big Red can dictate their success.

“If they fly around and create turnovers, they’ll have fun. Everyone has to do their job, get to their landmarks and do their drops. When you fly around, it covers up a lot of mistakes when you don’t really know the defense as well as you think you do.” A sense of competitiveness amongst each other in terms of who’s going to get to the football first will aid the Blackshirts immensely according to Brown.

Like the rest of Husker Nation, he’ll be watching intently, no doubt having the occasional flashback to his days in the NFL as the Huskers look to adapt quickly. Regardless of how long that takes, Brown is content simply because of who is teaching the Blackshirts these days.

“I don’t know how great they’ll be this year but I know eventually because of who [Diaco] is he will make the defense great. That’s what makes me happy and what makes me feel comfortable about what’s going on in Lincoln.”

Also: Diaco 101 – Previewing the Huskers’ new defensive look

To comment or keep up with the author, follow Brandon on twitter at @eightlaces

A member of the Football Writers Association of America, Brandon has spent over a decade reporting on and researching college football, both the sport itself and recruiting.

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