- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Cameron Meredith is a visual person, both inside and outside Nebraska's football complex.
The Huskers senior defensive end enjoys photography and has displayed his painting skills at The Corky Canvas, a Lincoln nightspot where patrons learn to paint while enjoying a beverage or two. Meredith's girlfriend is one of the painting instructors there.
"Not to brag, but I'm pretty artistic," said Meredith, who lists Salvador Dali's "Melting Clocks" and the works of Andy Warhol among his favorites. "That was my first passion, actually, before sports."
Meredith has used his visual skills in the film room this winter as he adjusts to a new defensive line coach, Rick Kaczenski, who joined Nebraska's staff in December after spending the past five seasons working with Iowa's defensive linemen. Kaczenski takes over a group that loses tackle Jared Crick but returns mostly intact and is led by Meredith and tackle Baker Steinkuhler, both multiyear starters.
To help Nebraska's linemen understand his vision, Kaczenski played them video clips of former Iowa standouts like Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug.
"On the field, he can explain it, he can go through it," Meredith said, "but until we see it in full action, we don't really understand. He brought in some really good clips of those Iowa players doing some pretty good stuff."
The transition should be smooth, because Nebraska's defenders studied Iowa more than any other team in 2011, even before Kaczenski arrived. Iowa's two-gap scheme resembled Nebraska's defensive system, and while Meredith said it's not a carbon copy, it helped players to see a similar defense go against Big Ten offenses.
"I was watching more of the [players'] technique, but you can see similarities," Meredith said. "For example, Coach Kaz wants us to make contact with our head, head-butt them more and get separation. Once we see one of the Iowa players do it who's similar to us, it puts in our minds, 'Hey, it's the same stuff. We've just got to learn the technique.'"
Meredith and his teammates get down to business when Nebraska opens spring practice March 10. The Huskers' defense fell short of expectations in 2011, finishing 37th in yards allowed and 42nd in points allowed, and must replace standouts like linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard.
After spending much the winter self-scouting, Meredith thinks third downs and limiting big plays are areas the defense must upgrade. Nebraska finished 64th nationally in third-down defense (40.2 percent conversions) in 2011 after ranking fourth in 2010 (29.95 percent) and 15th in 2009 (32.3 percent).
"Third down needs to become a lot more important to the defense," said Meredith, who led the team in quarterback hurries (9) and ranked second in both sacks (5) and tackles for loss (6). "You can either give the ball back to your offense, or they have another chance to get a first down and go score. One of the biggest things, which is why we didn't have great success in some games, once a team got a big play, it was kind of a snowball effect. We need to eliminate that, get in those manageable third-down situations, and get home on a blitz or on the pass rush."
The Huskers will go through their first spring with new coordinator John Papuchis, although the linemen are more than familiar with Papuchis, who coached them directly the past four seasons. Papuchis emphasizes the need for players to not only know their position, but the positions alongside them -- defensive ends must be able to transition inside, and vice versa -- what's happening at other levels of the defense.
His mission should help Nebraska's defense improve its communication, which Meredith said must be significantly better in games.
"He did a great job as a D-line coach of making us aware of why we're doing things rather than [just] what we're doing," Meredith said. "We knew exactly what the linebackers and DBs were doing, because JP expected that out of us. Him being a defensive coordinator, he's going to broaden everyone's span of football knowledge."
Nebraska's defenders begin putting paint brush to canvas next week.