Husker notes: Closing in on defensive starters; Tight races in secondary and more

Husker notes: Closing in on defensive starters; Tight races in secondary and more
Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said sophomore safety JoJo Domann has made plays and shown a good attitude. (World-Herald News Service)

Nebraska’s defensive coaches have a good grasp on who will be in the top two units after a major scrimmage Sunday, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said Tuesday.

The next week is about trying to identify starters.

When asked directly which players stood out in the scrimmage, Chinander picked seven: defensive lineman Carlos Davis and linebackers Mohamed Barry, Tyrin Ferguson, Luke Gifford, Will Honas, Collin Miller and Dedrick Young.

Defensive line coach Mike Dawson said Davis has been “extremely explosive” in camp and is one of the most athletic players on defense.

“That’s a deadly combination,” Dawson said. “If you’re one of the strongest and one of the most athletic, usually that’s good for us up front. We’ve been able to move him all across the defensive line and do a bunch of things with him.”

Dawson conceded it wouldn’t be easy for him to winnow down the defensive line rotation to six or seven guys. He wants to play as many as he can, but this week the top linemen might get seven reps while the third-team backups only get three. Last week they all got five.

Frost, Dawson said, had asked him the same question a reporter posed about graduate transfer Vaha Vainuku, who has played little college football since leaving high school. Vainuku went on a two-year Mormon mission, then battled injuries for three years at Utah.

“He’s got to keep comin’,” Dawson said. “The more he’s in this program and the more he’s with (strength and conditioning) coach Zach Duval, the better he’ll be. He’s a hard worker who wants to learn. He’s a sharp kid. He’s just got to get back into doing it, day after day after day, without hitting those doldrums.”

Mississippi transfer Breon Dixon wants to ‘bring physicality’ to the Husker defense

LINCOLN — Breon Dixon can’t breathe.

He’s cornered by reporters on the second floor of the Hawks Championship Center, gasping for air.

“We’re looking way better I’d say as a team, as an offense …” out of breath, he trails off and puts his hands on his knees.

“We just had to run, my bad,” Dixon says with a smile.

He needs a chair or a drink of water, maybe five minutes to cool off. Instead he continues. Now that Dixon is eligible to play, there’s no time to spare.

“I don’t want it to be one thing that they can’t say, ‘Oh, you know, he can’t do this,’ or, ‘He can’t do this,’ so every day if I go back in my film and I watch and see certain techniques I can get better at, I come out here and make it a focus today,” Dixon said. “It’s just little stuff that you pick up on. Maybe if you’re not eligible you’re just like, ‘Oh I’ve got time for that,’ or, ‘I’m gonna get that.’ So now it’s just an emphasis on everything.”

Dixon transferred to Nebraska from Mississippi in January. The former four-star linebacker from Atlanta played sparingly for the Rebels in 2017, racking up just five tackles in six appearances. After former coach Hugh Freeze resigned, Dixon looked into transferring to a Big Ten school, and whittled down his choices to Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan.

He’d been recruited by Nebraska coach Scott Frost and the UCF staff out of high school in Atlanta. On his visit to Lincoln, Dixon saw Frost’s vision for Nebraska and was sold. Despite knowing next to nothing about Lincoln or the Huskers, he committed and moved north. He and six other Ole Miss players applied for immediate eligibility.

“You always got that question mark in the back of your head when you’re not eligible, or you just feel like you may just be out there to be out there,” Dixon said.

In May, outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt sent Dixon a text saying that he received a call from the NCAA, and Dixon could play right away. Since that text, Dixon’s motor has kicked into hyperdrive.

“I feel good. I’m out here just playing with more drive, more passion,” Dixon said. “I’m playing a little bigger role than then, of course, because I didn’t know if I was eligible.”

Dixon was brought in to be Nebraska’s version of Shaquem Griffin, the UCF All-America linebacker who was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in April. In 2017, Griffin had 74 tackles, 16 for loss plus seven sacks. Dixon, at 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, is a bit smaller that Griffin. He is the smallest of Nebraska’s 14 outside linebackers. Doesn’t matter where Dixon lands, he said. He just wants to play.

“I wanna bring speed, I wanna bring physicality, I wanna bring swag,” Dixon said. “At the end of the day, you go out there and you’re thinking, ‘He may beat my tail on this play, but the next play I’m gonna go out there and whoop his tail.’ So it’s like that kind of never-quit mentality. And that’s what I kinda have. I may not be the biggest or whatever, but anytime a tackle or tight end come and block me, I may lose a rep, but I’m gonna get up and go harder the next rep just to make sure.”

Dixon is a talker. He speaks in paragraphs and amid his monologues he hardly comes up for air. And he admits he’s the same way on the field. He wants to keep the energy up on defense, wants to get inside the offense’s head. He doesn’t seem to have an off switch and is trying to instill a certain sense of grit on the defense that it may have been lacking last year.

“I’m not sure what happened last season, I wasn’t around but from what I hear it was a lot of quit from guys no matter if its third quarter, fourth quarter, or what,” Dixon said. “So right now we’re just trying to teach the mentality of don’t give up; 14-0, 21-0, if we up 21-0, don’t give up. Keep putting your foot on their neck.”

Dixon is slowly being introduced to Nebraska. He likes that downtown Lincoln is so close to campus. It reminds him a little of Atlanta, as does being around fellow Atlanta-native Mohamed Barry. Those two watch film together, give each other tips from inside linebacker to outside ’backer, and vice versa. Dixon also enjoyed hearing from former Blackshirts Jason Peter and Grant Wistrom over the weekend. And though Dixon doesn’t know much about Nebraska in the 1990s, he’s beginning to see some similarities to what Peter and Wistrom are talking about, and what’s going on now in Lincoln.

“Those are guys that are on the same mentality that I have. They’re the type of guys that get after it, get after it, get after it. And that’s what they were trying to get into our team,” Dixon said.

The depth chart is still being pieced together. Classes haven’t started yet. It all can’t come soon enough.

“I’m always antsy. Looking real, real forward to Sept. 1,” Dixon said. “I’m just ready to see what the season holds. I’m just ready to get there.”

Tight races in secondary

There are tight races going on in Nebraska’s secondary. Through 10 preseason practices, they’re almost too close to call.

Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said his production chart — an ongoing evaluation that awards points for plays made and subtracts for missed chances — has seen plenty of movement so far. Among the leaders at safety are graduate transfer Tre Neal, senior Antonio Reed, juco transfer Deontai Williams and sophomore JoJo Domann, who is recovered after consecutive ACL surgeries.

“I was on top for like a week and a half, but since the scrimmage, two people have passed me,” Williams said, referring to Neal and Reed. “It’s real, real close. Like one point.”

The cornerback battle also rages on. Junior Lamar Jackson, true freshman Cam Taylor and sophomore Dicaprio Bootle are atop that board, Fisher said. True freshman Braxton Clark is “creeping up,” too.

Sunday’s scrimmage was another positive step, the assistant said.

“They’re getting better,” Fisher said. “Some of the things I’m asking them to do, I knew it going into it that they weren’t used to doing it. The amount of pressure I put on them every day, I knew that they were going to know how to overcome that pressure and block it out and get better as a group. For the most part, I think I’m getting that out of the guys.”

Domann impressing early

Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said he’s impressed with sophomore safety JoJo Domann, who missed last season with a knee injury. Domann’s recovery from was then delayed by re-injuring the knee, so he missed spring practices. Fisher said Domann has made plays and shown a good attitude.

“First day of camp I said ‘Whoa, this kid can play,’ so we’ve been trying to find ways to get JoJo on the field,” Fisher said Tuesday. “Gotta get him in the mix. JoJo is making himself known on film. But he’s also learning the defense like others are doing, so he’s making mistakes here and there. But he can play multiple position back there.

Fisher said the safety production chart he keeps is “damn near neck-and-neck.”

Safety Tre Neal, the Central Florida transfer who joined the team right before training camp, said he’s at the top of Nebraska’s defensive back production board. Among safeties, Antonio Reed, Deontai Williams and Domann are behind Neal. Lamar Jackson leads the corners, followed by Cam Taylor and Dicaprio Bootle.

Fisher said Neal, Domann, Williams, Taylor and Bootle all had strong scrimmages.

“Lamar missed a tackle that he wished he could get back,” Fisher said.

The challenge of Frost’s offense, Fisher said, is steep.

“Very tough,” he said. “They can give you a different formation, different sets every play, and they’re going fast, and guys have to see it all, make the calls, make the checks.”

Fisher said he’s “lucky” he gets to face that offense in practice because of the kind of rigor it requires of his defense.

Pickering leads at kicker

There’s now a leader in Nebraska’s competition for placekicker.

Freshman Barret Pickering of Birmingham, Alabama, has the edge over another freshman, Omaha Burke walk-on Cole Frahm.

“Pickering’s done a really good job in terms of his accuracy and location,” outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt said Tuesday. Dewitt is also Nebraska’s special teams coordinator.

Punter Caleb Lightbourn is likely to handle kickoffs.

Dewitt said Pickering has a range of 56 yards.

“He’s surprisingly got a lot more leg in his field goals than you would think, because he’s not a very big person, right?” Dewitt said. “He’s kind of little.”

Pickering is listed at 6-foot, 195 pounds.

New environment for Lightbourn

Caleb Lightbourn didn’t consider Sunday’s scrimmage a stellar one for the punting unit. The junior punter called himself “off kilter a little bit” as the group continues to coalesce.

“I actually didn’t have a great day, but I learned from it and got better (Tuesday),” Lightbourn said. “That was my first day live with a full unit snapping kicks. It was a little new. We’re still working on protection and making sure we’re going through the motions and being on the right guys. It’s more of a confidence thing for them and for me.”

The spring and fall workouts have been a much different experience for the veteran from Washougal, Washington. Last year, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco stuck with him for much of practice and watched film with him off the field, hammering home mechanical details along the way. Dewitt takes a more hands-off approach.

“You definitely have to become more disciplined and more self-reliant,” Lightbourn said. “Obviously, when you have someone critiquing you every day, it’s a lot harder to get off of your alignment. When you’re by yourself, it’s a lot easier to get sidetracked and fall into bad habits. I want to make sure I have good habits and make sure my motions are repetitive and everything.”

Lightbourn also said he’s still in line to handle kickoffs — “On the depth chart, I’m the guy” — and feels good about that aspect of his game.

Linebackers working on basics

On a sunny Sunday inside Memorial Stadium, Dewitt and his players took reps in communication.

This wasn’t a day for hard hits and exotic blitzes. They worked on adjusting to having some staffers upstairs in the press box instead of giving advice next to them. They made sure to use the same terms when relaying information.

Physically, Dewitt said, it was a day of basics — so much so that it’s too soon to say any particular outside ’backer stood out. Chinander, though, complimented Gifford and Ferguson in addition to Miller, a sophomore swing linebacker, for their performances.

“Who can line up?” Dewitt said. “Who can block? Who can’t block? Who can get off of blocks? Who can’t get off of blocks? We just want to see basic fundamentals right now. We’re not trying to scheme each other up. Towards the next scrimmage it will probably be a little bit more definitive as to who can and who can’t.”

Quick hits

» ESPN was on hand for practice Tuesday to interview Frost and Osborne. ESPN is working on a long-form feature about prominent coaches at new schools such as Florida State and Texas A&M.

» Nebraska largely practiced indoors because of rain showers moving through the area.

» Frost left the Hawks Center talking with Martinez. They were flanked by Kenny Wilhite, NU’s director of high school relations, and Associate Athletic Director Matt Davison. The other QBs had left the facility a couple of minutes earlier.

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