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Summer influx drives competition, confidence early in camp for Husker secondary

August 7, 2018

That buzz you hear after Nebraska’s first four preseason practices is emanating from the Husker secondary.

We’re still weeks — maybe even months — from getting close enough to tell if it’s white noise, the slow grinding of gradual progress or a full-on rebuilding buzz saw. But the first postpractice preseason media availability was dominated by talk of elevated competition and elevated performance from perhaps the most fretted-about position group.

Let’s start with the why: The secondary has seen radical change even since spring ball ended. Deontai Williams arrived in January, coming from Jones County (Mississippi) to give the safeties some needed depth. But since the Red-White Game — the last public look at the Huskers — six more players have joined the room and JoJo Domann (knee) has returned to at least partial action.

That’s seven of 16 scholarship players — Domann, freshman safeties C.J. Smith and Cam’Ron Jones, freshman corners Cam Taylor and Braxton Clark, juco corner Will Jackson and Central Florida graduate transfer Tre Neal — in Travis Fisher’s room who did not participate in spring ball but are here now.

“If they were bad players, it wouldn’t make a lot of difference, but they’re really good players,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said of the summer arrivals. “I’ve seen those guys make plays, they’re bumping up the level of competition on every other DB.”

That’s a big change from the spring. Chinander, who oversaw a ball-hawking defense the past two years at Central Florida, admitted Monday that he had real concerns about the back end earlier this year.

“In spring, (trust) was not very high,” he said. “Right now I’m really thrilled. Definitely that’s the most improved unit on the team. By no stretch of the imagination are we ready to roll yet; we’re not ready to go out there and play a game yet. But that unit as a whole, the guys that were there, the young guys, that group has taken a huge, huge step in fall camp and I think we’re all pleasantly surprised with them.”

There’s no clear pecking order at this point, and sophomore cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said the first four days have been heavy on rotating. He might start playing across from one teammate, then have it switch later in practice, for example.

It is safe to say, though, that the newcomers will push the veterans.

“They’ve brought in guys that are actually talented and actually pushing people,” junior cornerback Lamar Jackson said. “It’s good to have people that have your back but are going to push me. ‘OK, I know he a baller, too, so it keeps me on my stuff and making sure I’m minimizing my mistakes,’ and at the same time it just keeps us going.

“The DBs have had a lot of energy these first four days.”

No young cornerback was raved about more than Taylor on Monday morning. Positive words, too, for walk-on Moses Bryant (Elkhorn South), along with Jones and Smith.

Fisher did not take questions Monday, but over the summer recounted sitting a young player down next to a veteran such as Jackson and telling him that his job was to take Jackson’s spot.

Jackson took it in stride, saying Monday that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You can teach a guy to take your job, but it’s up to you to say, ‘There’s no way he’s taking my (freaking) job,’” he said. “That’s how it goes. All the young guys ask me questions, I’m going to tell them exactly what to do, I’ll tell them to watch me, but at the same time, I’m confident in my abilities and what I’m doing. It’s just about having confidence in yourself and respect for the game.”

They get a stiff test in practice each day going against NU’s talented set of receivers and backs. Chinander said the group has had several takeaways early — the Huskers had nine interceptions in 2017, five from the secondary — and has held its own.

Bootle, though, said turning in a good rep isn’t enough.

“If one of us is slipping, if you don’t tell him he’s slipping, then that’s not your boy,” he said. “We’re all tight and we all love each other in that room, so if somebody slipping, you’ve got to get your stuff together.

“Maybe (a teammate is) telling me that I’m not getting a good enough jam in Cover-2. OK, I might feel like I did a pretty good job, but, obviously, if somebody’s saying ‘Hey, you putting stress on me,’ then I’ve got to be better. That’s what will make us a great room.”

The confidence is there. The returnees seem refreshed by a new start and the newcomers seem hell-bent on making noise. Thus, the early-camp buzz. What will it look like come Sept.1? Oct. 6? Nov. 24? Bootle is just sure he wants it to be different than last year.

“We’re just trying to work every day and come out and show (Coach Scott Frost) that he can depend on us,” the Miami native said. “He can count on us and we’re going to be there to do the job.”

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