Healthy competition has restored the ‘swag’ to Nebraska’s secondary

August 8, 2018

LINCOLN — Lamar Jackson took the Gatorade bottle wrapped in his right hand and pointed it toward his head. The Husker junior cornerback talks auctioneer fast about his on-field struggles and offseason improvements, but the quick gesture says more.

More than anything, he had to get his mind right.

Jackson — 6-foot-3, 215 pounds — has the speed, wingspan and long stride to be a top Big Ten corner. And he has the want-to. He’s long expressed that. But he didn’t have the know-how-to.

“Knowing what you can do, knowing how to make the plays, knowing where to be to make the plays you need to make,” Jackson said. “It’s just — it’s mental. I’m developing as a player up top.”

The fortunes of Nebraska’s 2018 defense may rest on Jackson and the rest of the previously maligned secondary becoming men in full. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander and defensive backs coach Travis Fisher did plenty in the offseason to force the issue. They added three transfers — including Tre Neal, a starter on Central Florida’s undefeated team — and flash-recruited, between December and February, four freshmen from Florida, Texas and Alabama.

Nebraska’s DB room is now full and competitive. That’ll get a mind right real quick.

“We’ve got more people that are good football players that we actually respect as DBs,” Jackson said in his rapid-fire manner.

Chinander said Monday that he’s noticed the difference. Interceptions and forced fumbles are up through four days of practice. Competition is strong. Freshmen — especially Cam Taylor, a converted high school option quarterback — have made it interesting.

Chinander concedes that his trust level in the unit was low at the start of spring, but the defensive backs are “definitely” the most improved position on the team. Not game-ready. But not like 2017, either, when Nebraska’s former defensive staff tried to paper over the secondary’s weaknesses with a cushion-soft scheme that handed out 10-yard slants like parade candy.

“That unit, as a whole, has taken a huge, huge step in fall camp, and I think we’re all pleasantly surprised with it,” Chinander said.

It took sacrifice from veterans like Jackson, sophomore corner Dicaprio Bootle and senior safeties Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed. After allowing opponents to complete 64.5 percent of passes at 7.3 yards per attempt — Big Ten basement figures — they didn’t have a choice but to take Fisher’s tough love. When Fisher tells freshmen in a meeting that it’s their job to swipe the starting spots from returners, then goes on a fan tour around the state saying the same thing, some humility helps.

Bootle, perhaps NU’s most consistent corner in 2017, smiled often Monday when asked about newcomers. He’s “grown to love” freshman walk-on Moses Bryant. He called junior college transfer safety Deontai Williams “the GOAT.” Will Jackson, another juco transfer brought in to compete, is “working,” Bootle said.

“They come in, we learn a little bit about them, we accept them, they’re our guys now,” Bootle said. “We’ve got to stick together. We’ve got to stay tight. From the walk-ons in the room to the freshmen to the vet, it’s welcoming in the DB room. We ride together, we die together.”

And learn to accept criticism from one another. If defensive backs shut one another out in previous years, they’re working to hear teammates’ concerns. If a safety tells Bootle that he didn’t jam a receiver well enough in a Cover 2 scheme, Bootle may want to “take it with a grain of salt.” But he said he has to note the stress of his teammate, too, and do it better.

Adding Neal to the roster is a crib sheet into secrets of Chinander’s defense. Chinander likes to present a problem to the defensive backs and let them figure out how to solve it. But Neal already knows the questions and the answers. So Chinander saw his defensive backs make coverage calls they wouldn’t otherwise know to make if Neal weren’t there.

In their own way, the freshmen — Taylor, Braxton Clark, C.J. Smith and Cam’ron Jones — help, too.

“Some of the older kids are set in their ways a little bit, and it’s like trying to break a wild horse. But these young kids, they do it how you want them to do it,” Chinander said. “If I tell them to run to the ball, they’re running to the ball full speed, and it makes other people look bad on film. So now the change is rolling. People are saying, ‘Well, I don’t really like this young kid, but I’ve got to match his intensity.’ ”

The 6-foot, 205-pound Taylor looks like he’s been playing cornerback all his life, Chinander said. Lamar Jackson said Taylor, thanks to a couple of interceptions, leads the DB competition board. His emergence may help keep the versatile Deontai Williams at safety, where Bootle said he’s already made a number of plays.

A bigger upshot, Jackson said, is the amount of “swag” in practice. Even coach Scott Frost has noticed. Jackson said Frost recently came up and said, “Whatever y’all doing, keep doing.” That small encouragement meant “a lot” to Jackson.

With their heads more in the game, Nebraska’s defensive backs have palpable pep.

“We’re playing pretty mean right now,” Bootle said. “Playing with an edge. It’s been good.

“Actually, it’s been great.”

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