LINCOLN — Seven sacks. Fourteen total tackles for loss. Effort and intensity.
But no takeaways?
Nebraska defensive coaches and players noted the glaring absence from their otherwise strong opening performance. They are one of nine teams in the country without a turnover, though they have played one less game than most.
“That was what was missing, in my mind,” inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud said after Tuesday’s practice. “You can always detail your work better, but the effort was very good, the tackles for loss, the hustle, the pursuit — that was all awesome. But we need to get the ball back, and that’s how our defense operates. That’s how we win games, is by getting turnovers.”
Secondary coach Travis Fisher said two of Nebraska’s three pass breakups could have been takeaways. There was the Dicaprio Bootle drop on a “gimme” at the end of a Colorado trick play and a deflection by Deontai Williams in the end zone that he could have snagged by turning around earlier.
Fisher said he tells his players “good job” in those moments. But maybe not “great job.”
“When that ball is in the air — especially that many times in the game (50) — we need to fly around,” Fisher said. “For the most part, those guys flew around. The way they flew around in the game, the effort was there. We just need to finish the play. Just finish the play.”
Nebraska tied for 115th nationally last season with 12 takeaways in 12 games while NU’s current coaches oversaw a defense at UCF that finished second with 32 in 13 contests. UCF recorded 26 takeaways in its first year under Frost after managing just 13 in 2015.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said players haven’t been 100 percent dialed in to drills NU does to steal the ball. Interceptions were down in practice last week, too. That has been changing the past few days.
“We have to produce some turnovers,” Chinander said. “Any time you get to the quarterback seven times — and we probably missed two more sacks that were easy ones — any time you get to the quarterback like that, you better get some turnovers out of the deal.”
Husker freshman Barret Pickering shakes off miss, turns his focus to the next kick
LINCOLN — Just after the start of the fourth quarter, after an incomplete third down pass from Adrian Martinez to JD Spielman, kicker Barret Pickering trotted out for his moment.
He patted down the turf with his foot and took four steps back, then swung his right arm over his right eye up to line up his 43-yard field goal attempt. It was maybe a little longer than you’d want for a true freshman’s first kick. Especially in a 28-27 game in the fourth quarter.
But Pickering wasn’t worried. Would’ve kicked a 50-yarder if needed, he said.
He took a deep breath. He gave holder Isaac Armstrong the nod. Then sailed the ball wide right.
He trotted back off the field, and as soon as he hit the bench, Pickering said, he’d moved on. He has to.
“I really should’ve made that field goal,” Pickering said this week. “I just had a mishit. But, short memory and move on and make the rest type of deal. Focus on the next kick.”
That’s the way he is going to survive this season, he said this week. Having a short memory. Staying even-keel.
That’s the way Pickering is anyway, special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt said. That’s why the new staff kept him on scholarship after the coaching transition. With freshman kickers, you have to be patient. You have to give them a leash and accept that it won’t be perfect.
That’s not the norm at Nebraska, which over the past decade has been one of the better field goal kicking schools in the country.
In the past 11 years, Nebraska has had four kickers: Alex Henery, Brett Maher, Pat Smith and Drew Brown. In those 11 years, only twice did a kicker fail to make more than 75 percent of his kicks: Brown as a freshman in 2014 and Maher in 2012, when he made 74.1 percent. Henery hit 100 percent of his kicks as a freshman in 2007 and 94.7 percent as a senior in 2010. Pat Smith knocked in 92.3 percent in 2014. By his senior year, Brown was 10 percent above the college football average, knocking in 85.7 percent of his tries.
That is one of Nebraska’s most consistent trends. NU’s field goal percentage the past 11 seasons is 82.6 percent. The college football average over that time is 74.3 percent.
So the shoes Pickering is stepping into? They’re big.
Pickering’s Nebraska kicker education came from Brown and Maher, who is now kicking for the Dallas Cowboys. While Brown was preparing last winter for the NFL combine, Pickering kicked with the four-year starter.
“He just told me to trust myself and how I kick,” Pickering said.
Maher told him the same.
A soccer player first, Pickering started kicking field goals as a hobby in middle school. He didn’t turn his attention to football until his dad suggested it in high school. Eventually, Pickering listened.
“For me, at first, when I kicked I didn’t think about anything technical-wise,” Pickering said. “To this day I still kind of have that same mentality. What I do isn’t overly complicated. Just try and put the ball through the uprights.”
He became one of the top kicking recruits in the country and committed to Nebraska under Mike Riley. He stuck around for the Scott Frost regime and had to beat out walk-on Cole Frahm for the starting spot in fall camp.
For the most part, Pickering works with Dewitt. But the coach shows him a good amount of trust to do what he needs to do to get ready.
So far, Dewitt said, he’s liked Pickering’s approach. He just needs to be a little more consistent.
On the missed 43-yarder Saturday, Dewitt said, Pickering planted his foot six or seven inches too far, which forced his body to push the kick a little bit to the right.
“Outside of that, a true freshman going into the game for the first time, he did a pretty decent job,” Dewitt said. “But we gotta be more consistent from that standpoint, and he knows that.”
Dewitt has coached only two freshman starting kickers before. And the good news, he said, is Pickering is the most level-headed freshman he’s come across.
“I’m excited about where his potential is going to be,” Dewitt said. “But potential is a fancy French word meaning you haven’t done anything yet.”
Pickering looks at kicking a little like golf. He, Armstrong and snapper Jordan Ober hit the links on weekends together when they can find time. And you’re not always going to hit the ball just as you’d like. But through 18 holes — or 12 football games — your entire body of work speaks for itself, and you can make up for early mistakes.
“I’m not going to have a lot of kicks in like a single game, but throughout a season, you just can’t hold on to that one bad kick,” Pickering said. “I just gotta move on and make the next one.”
Not so special in opener
Nebraska’s special teams were less than spectacular against Colorado, with four penalties, negative-2 punt return yards and a missed field goal.
“First and foremost, I gotta coach it better,” special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt said Tuesday. “I have to assume the responsibility for those things.”
The errors, he said, involved both technique and effort. That goes for the holding penalties and the two flags for blocks in the back.
The blocks in the back were brutal, Dewitt said, because on one, blocks were set up downfield for a long return. But the penalties came because guys were too anxious and didn’t get their feet set and their leverage was way off.
“They were off by about 8 inches,” Dewitt said.
Tyjon Lindsey won the punt return job because Dewitt knew, for certain, he’d be able to catch punts in the game. His speed helps, too.
“I think he did OK,” Dewitt said. “I mean, obviously, he was put in some stressful situations with some guys missing a couple of blocks. But he read where he was supposed to read and where he was supposed to go, so he was accurate in those things. And his process was good.”
Factors for Blackshirts
Chinander has enjoyed learning Nebraska’s Blackshirts tradition. Less enjoyable were the conversations the defensive coordinator has had with players this week who didn’t earn them.
Seven defenders received the coveted practice jerseys Monday: linebackers Gifford, Tyrin Ferguson, Dedrick Young and Mo Barry; linemen Mick Stoltenberg and Freedom Akinmoladun; and cornerback Bootle.
“I had to talk to every kid that maybe didn’t get one, that maybe you (media) think deserved one, that maybe the fans think deserved one,” Chinander said. “But they’re not there every day in practice. They haven’t been with us for six months.”
Some non-Blackshirts played well Saturday. But other factors came into play, the coach said, such as being late for a meeting, skipping class or not showing consistency in practice.
“I’m not saying they won’t get one here in the next few weeks or by the end of the season,” Chinander said. “But right now they are who they are.”
Ruud was once a Blackshirt, as were his brother and father. He said he has new perspective on the tradition now that he has an office at Nebraska instead of a locker.
“It’s funny. As a coach, you think about it more than when you were a player,” Ruud said. “You were really excited to get it as a player, but you think about it a lot more as a coach because you think about a lot of the guys that have been here before you. When you hand those out, you want to make sure that the guys who’ve played here for 40 years would be happy (about) who you’re handing those Blackshirts to.”
D-line has deal for sacks
There’s a new deal. A more healthful one than the Big Mac Sack promo from McDonald’s.
“We don’t do that. We’re trying to stay healthy,” Khalil Davis said.
The deal now is when a defensive lineman gets a sack, he has buy dinner for teammates who contributed to it.
“So they helped me get that sack,” Davis said, motioning to redshirt freshman nose tackle Damion Daniels. “So I have to buy them dinner.”
The defensive line won the battle upfront with Colorado for most of Saturday’s game. Davis had two sacks, Akinmoladun had 1.5 and Ben Stille had one.
Akinmoladun and Stoltenberg were the only linemen to get Blackshirts after the Colorado game.
Davis said he liked the rotation on the line. It kept everyone fresh and helped lead to those sacks.
“It was awesome,” Davis said. “You could definitely see how hard we played. We get three in, then three out. The next man comes in. We’re all Blackshirts on Saturday.”