A ‘different breed’ comes to Lincoln: Bob Diaco brings 3-4 scheme, top-level experience to NU’s coordinator post
LINCOLN — As he built one of the best defenses in the nation, Bob Diaco would arrive before dawn at Notre Dame’s football offices and usually be one of the last to leave. He loved the film room, and wanted his players to love it, too — so much that he could figure out an offense’s play call by how the tight end distributed the weight on his hand before the snap.
“Diaco is a different breed. He was an ultimate leader — an ultimate warrior,” said former Notre Dame linebacker Danny Spond, who played three seasons for Diaco at Notre Dame.
A minute later, Spond, who started 11 games for the Irish’s elite 2012 defense, paid Diaco an even higher compliment.
“He’s the best college coach I could imagine,” Spond said.
Now, that coach works for Nebraska. The Huskers officially announced Diaco as their new defensive coordinator Saturday morning. The 43-year-old will be the highest-paid assistant in NU history, making $825,000 in his first season and $875,000 in his second. He’ll be charged with taking the Husker defense from decent — 33rd in scoring in 2016 — to dominating.
In a press release, coach Mike Riley — working with a new defensive coordinator for the first time in 20 years — said Diaco emerged as a strong candidate.
“When we began looking for a new defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco quickly rose to the top of the list,” Riley said. “He has coordinated a top-level defense, has proven himself as a great teacher and recruiter, and we are excited to have him join our football program. Bob is an energetic coach and is ready to get started immediately, beginning with hitting the recruiting trail to find future Blackshirts.”
Diaco, who played college football at Iowa and served a two-year graduate assistant stint there, said he was “excited to become a part of one of the truly great programs in the history of college football.”
“Coach Riley has such great respect from everyone in football, and he is building something special here,” he said. “I started my college football experience in the Big Ten and am thrilled to be back in this conference. I can’t wait to get to work and help build a championship football program.”
Nebraska is in the midst of a recruiting push, so Riley and Diaco didn’t immediately hold a press conference and were not available by phone. Riley is likely to wait until he has hired another assistant coach — to replace the departing Brian Stewart — before he holds a press conference to talk about his new coaches.
But in a variety of conversations Saturday — including interviews with Spond and former Notre Dame defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, who also started on the 2012 team — a clear portrait of Diaco as a coordinator emerged. Learned. Energetic. Tireless in his preparation. Intense. Direct.
Diaco didn’t berate players, but he could break down their strengths and weaknesses in great detail.
“He’ll get in your face — in a good way,” said Lewis-Moore, who had six sacks on the 2012 defense, which allowed just 12.8 points per game. “He’ll get after you, and he’ll love you. I had a lot of fun playing for him. He’s very intense, but he’s only going to bring the best out of you.”
Said Spond: “It’s worse to disappoint him than make him mad. He was really good at that. He knew he didn’t need to yell at us because we knew what was expected of us. When we didn’t do it — didn’t execute — he didn’t need to yell. We knew we’d failed. He knew when to turn it on and when to turn it off. He was very good at being pretty level-headed.”
Notre Dame used a 3-4 scheme — Lewis-Moore said the scheme occasionally shifted into a 4-3 — that stationed a defensive tackle right over the center and two more defensive ends over the offensive tackles. Lewis-Moore was one of the ends, and he had “two-gap” responsibility; that is, he had to be able to man the gap between the guard and the tackle — and potentially the one between the tackle and the tight end — on the same play.
Nebraska fans are used to hearing the “two-gap” label, since former coach Bo Pelini adhered to some of those philosophies while using a 4-3 alignment. In Diaco’s defense, the four linebackers were freed up to make plays when the defensive line — and the 2012 Notre Dame unit had three future NFL draft picks for starters — gummed up the offensive line.
“It lets the linebackers make plays,” Lewis-Moore said. “You’ve got to have a solid D-line.”
Said Spond: “It’s a very athletic defense — you have to be. You’re relying on your linebackers to be pass rushers and defend the run, but also drop back and cover the slot. But especially for college football — where you get quarterbacks who run the ball a lot more and there’s a lot of spread and spread option type stuff — the 3-4 fits really well, because you’ve got a lot of athletic hands at the second level.”
Some 3-4 defenses have a lot of exotic, unorthodox blitzes attached to them. Some 4-3 defenses do, too, and former Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker — whom Diaco is replacing — unpacked the suitcase of tricks for the Music City Bowl. The blitzes didn’t get home.
Diaco often prefers a sounder, safer approach, sources said.
“We really worked on never giving up the big play,” Spond said. “We can bend, but let’s not break.”
The stats back it up. In 2011, 2012 and 2013 — Diaco’s last three years as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame — his defenses ranked third, second and first nationally in fewest 20-yard-or-more plays allowed. In the 30-plus yards category, the Fighting Irish ranked sixth, second and sixth nationally.
Banker’s defenses ranked 23rd in 20-plus yard plays allowed this season and 49th in 30-plus yard plays allowed. Nebraska’s stats were abysmal — 114th and 111th — in 2015.
Because Diaco’s scheme didn’t break easily at Notre Dame, he put major emphasis on red zone defense. He even had a metaphor for it: the “white light.”
“When a light bulb gets so bright it literally becomes a blinding white light, that’s how our emotions had to be in the red zone,” Spond said. “He’d say, ‘The hopes and dreams of millions of fans are on our backs,’ and it gets intensified in the red zone. That was something he instilled in us, and it really became a cultural feel.”
In 2012, Notre Dame gave up touchdowns on just 34.2 percent of opponents’ possessions inside the Irish 20. That ranked third nationally.
Lewis-Moore and Spond both praised Diaco’s ability to prepare them for games. Lewis-Moore said Diaco was good at putting the defense through situational football. Spond said Diaco’s film work was dynamic.
In fact, he’d describe the mental progression of his players as going from the “100 level” to the “400 level” of the defense — much like the progression of academic courses in college. By 2012, Spond said, the defense was at a 400 level.
“He could dissect where the tight end’s weight was on his hand to dictate what the play was going to be,” Spond said.
That attention to detail is part of how Diaco won the Broyles Award for the nation’s best assistant after the 2012 regular season.
But Spond said the coordinator knew how to turn off the intensity, too — to show the personal, caring side. Many of his coaching lessons, Spond said, were tied to real-life experiences unrelated to football.
And when Spond battled serious migraines — which left him briefly paralyzed and hospitalized at the start of the 2012 season — Diaco would stop by after work and visit him, sometimes at 10 or 11 p.m. Diaco would still go into work at 4:30 a.m. the next day.
Spond chose to retire from football just before the 2013 season on the advice of doctors. After he told his dad, the second person he told was Diaco, who knew what Spond had been through.
“He told me, ‘You don’t have to say anymore. I wasn’t going to let you back on the field, I love you too much,’ ” Spond recalled. “And he made me feel just like I was another one of the players that entire year.
“He took care of me. That’s the type man he was. That’s the type of man he is to his players.”