Husker notes: Husker defense looks ‘completely different’ than in the spring — and that’s a positive

Husker notes: Husker defense looks ‘completely different’ than in the spring — and that’s a positive
Erik Chinander admits he was surprised by how ready his defense was for fall camp. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — The first question to Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander on Monday probed into how much information the Blackshirts retained from the spring.

They didn’t lose any, the coach said. If four fall practices are any indication, the Huskers have actually learned more going into the first season under coach Scott Frost.

“I feel like the kids did a great job of taking it upon themselves this summer,” Chinander said. “The old guys taught the new guys. Install really has been pretty easy. The kids really know the answers right now, so they did an unbelievable job with the playbook over the summer and the spring.”

Chinander called the development “very surprising,” considering he didn’t know how the unit would approach the summer. But defenders look “a lot different” from a summer of weights and conditioning. There are also more vocal leaders, and the “followership” has bumped noticeably as well.

“The competition has increased everywhere,” Chinander said. “So it’s been really good for the entire defense. To be honest with you, we look like a completely different unit on both sides, I think, than the spring. I think it’s knowledge of the system, it’s knowing how Coach Frost wants them to practice. It’s probably more competition out there than it was in the spring, but it’s a good thing right now.”

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

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.”

Quarterback competition gets the attention, but Huskers also need a kicker

There does not seem to be a leader in the clubhouse in Nebraska’s kicker competition.

True freshman Barret Pickering and redshirt freshman walk-on Cole Frahm are in a battle to replace Drew Brown. Special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt said they are parsing out the kickers’ reps throughout fall camp. Pickering and Frahm appear to be taking equal reps as the starter.

“Just like a quarterback you keep a throw count, or pitcher you keep a pitch count,” Dewitt said. “They’ve only got so many kicks in their leg through the course of camp, so we try to make it very much a situational deal for those guys so they’re not just out kicking every single time that they can.

“Those guys have done a good job in terms of distance and accuracy as of right now.”

In terms of a kickoff specialist, that seems to be punter Caleb Lightbourn’s job. Dewitt is 95 percent sure Lightbourn will take those duties come game day.

Lincoln visit shattered stereotypes, sealed a commitment from Georgia’s Quinton Newsome

Quinton Newsome laughs as he confesses. A month ago he believed the stereotype that Nebraska was all cornfields.

But a flight from his home in Suwanee, Georgia, to Lincoln for an unofficial visit last week changed everything for the coveted defensive back. He saw a vibrant downtown. Academic support that won over his parents. A coaching staff closer than any he’s met. The facilities were top-notch, too.

“I just felt like it would be a great fit for me for the next four years in college,” Newsome told The World-Herald. “When I was just sitting around, all the coaches made me feel like I was a priority.”

Newsome committed to Nebraska early Monday afternoon. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound three-star recruit surprised coaches with a text message before announcing on social media that Nebraska had beaten fellow finalists Georgia and Auburn.

Newsome’s decision pushes Nebraska’s 2019 class to 16 commits, though he is the first defensive back. He’s the fifth in the group to pledge since July 19.

“It was really close. I think it all came down to the final stretch,” Newsome said. “It took me a while, but I feel like Nebraska will be the best fit for me and where I’ll be able to grow the most.”

Distance wasn’t a factor for Newsome, who grew up a “military brat” traveling the country. He knows Nebraska linebacker Mo Barry — a former Grayson High standout in Georgia — and shares a trainer with him in the Atlanta area. He also connected with NU freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez during his visit and received the full blessing of his parents, who were impressed by their meeting with coach Scott Frost.

“The coaching staff, that’s one of the coaching staffs that I wouldn’t mind leaving my youngest kid with,” Kimberly Newsome said last week. “This is my baby. He will be far away from home if he decides to go to school there. I can honestly say that I will be comfortable with his decision to attend Nebraska if that’s what his choice would be.”

Quinton Newsome said coaches see him as a safety in college. He plays all over the secondary at North Gwinnett and finished his junior season with 49 tackles, 10 defended passes and an interception as the school claimed a state championship. He planned on playing college basketball only a few years ago before he discovered how well he could hit ball carriers and stay with receivers.

“I think I’m a pretty big DB,” Newsome said. “I could play both corner and safety. I think that’s what really sticks out about me and what a lot of coaches like about me. I can come down and hit, I can play man coverage very well, I can play zone coverage. I have a very good football IQ, which a lot of people don’t have. When I get going, plays just click for me. I think it comes really easily to me.”

Frost brought in seven scholarship defensive backs — four freshmen and three transfers — in 2018 after Nebraska didn’t get any to campus from the 2017 cycle. The Huskers offered a scholarship to Newsome in late March.

Newsome said he will only take an official visit to Nebraska this fall, then plans to arrive for good next summer.

“I feel great,” Newsome said. “I feel like a lot of weight is off my shoulders with all the recruitment being done. I can just focus on one school right now, which is Nebraska. I don’t plan on decommitting.”

Lamar Jackson turning a corner during fall practice

LINCOLN — Lamar Jackson felt the light turn on for him sometime in the past few months. Suddenly in fall practices, coaches are telling him to just keep doing what he’s doing.

The 6-foot-3 junior played all 12 games last year and made 38 tackles. But the one-time heralded recruit didn’t make any interceptions and often drew the ire of fans for his public struggles in the new 3-4 defensive scheme.

With his third defensive coordinator in as many years, Jackson said he is in a much better state of mind.

“Now I see what they’ve been wanting me to do, like what the issue has always been,” Jackson said. “Like, ‘Oh, you can make that play. Just do this.’ It’s like the little stuff. So I’m making sure I just finish every play, making all the right decisions and making all the right calls.”

Jackson said practices are more fun and competitive than ever. He said he’s sitting No. 2 on the ongoing “performance chart” kept by DBs coach Travis Fisher that tracks plays made — and not made — by the secondary and keeps score accordingly.

Atop the board is true freshman Cam Taylor, who Jackson said has learned the defense quicker than any other newcomer. Taylor — who intercepted two passes during the first practice — is a former high school quarterback who teammates say has already shown leadership qualities.

It’s just one example of why Jackson said this won’t be a repeat of 2017.

“The Blackshirts, we’ve been swarming around. … I’m impressed with the defense,” Jackson said. “We’ve been bringing it. It’s exciting to watch. Practice ain’t even feel long. We’re out there having fun. It’s fun when you’re dominating and you’re doing what you gotta do.”

Roberts shapes up

Barrett Ruud sent Avery Roberts into the summer with a challenge to get in better shape and come back ready to compete. So far, Nebraska’s inside linebackers coach likes how the true sophomore has responded.

Roberts played in all 12 games last season, mostly on special teams, and logged four tackles. But Ruud didn’t like how the Delaware native handled himself in the spring. His conditioning, he said, wasn’t up to the standards of a Division I player.

The 6-foot-1 linebacker is still listed at 230 pounds like last year but appears to be in better position to push starting candidates like Mo Barry, Dedrick Young and Will Honas.

“He’s done a good job,” Ruud said. “I think he’s taken to heart what I asked him to do and gotten himself in better shape. He’s still got a long ways to go, but he’s definitely made improvements from spring to fall.”

Daniels hits it on the nose

Damion Daniels spent his first year in college working on the scout team and listed at 310 pounds. Now the 6-foot-2 redshirt freshman nose tackle is up to 340 after an offseason of work that defensive line coach Mike Dawson said has paid dividends.

Dawson sees the boost in confidence in how Daniels has handled himself through four fall practices. The 18-year-old did something more difficult than just adding pounds — he changed the type of weight on his body.

“He’s big,” Dawson said. “It’s a matter of changing and having the right kind of weight. That’s a big piece of it for us. We want him to be big, but we want to be big and strong, not big and sloppy. He’s done a nice job.”

The coach said Nebraska’s defensive line will have a couple of “swing” guys who could play inside or on the edge this fall. That doesn’t include Daniels, whose frame has him behind only senior Mick Stoltenberg at nose.

“(Daniels) is doing a much better job of understanding how to play through his man on and not just trying to pretend he’s this skinny little guy running through a gap,” Dawson said. “He’s doing a lot better job on understanding himself and understanding how he can use his size to his advantage instead of just being a big guy running around out there.”

D-line mixes things up

Stoltenberg said Monday that Nebraska has 16 defensive linemen — scholarship players and walk-ons — cycling through repetitions in practice and  Dawson writes the defensive line combinations for every single rep.

“He likes to roll guys in, keep guys fresh, make sure guys are getting the appropriate amount of time or the appropriate amount of reps,” Stoltenberg said.

Stoltenberg said he likes watching the freshmen defensive linemen.

“I’ll tell them, ‘Hey, when I was a freshman in camp, this and this and this,’ and it’s kind of weird, looking back, that it was so long ago, relatively,” Stoltenberg said. “But I love working with young kids and making sure guys feel welcome.”

The depth is important, Stoltenberg said, because “you can’t take 70 snaps in the Big Ten as a defensive lineman.” Nebraska’s offense will move fast, so the chances that NU will face more defensive snaps are high.

Husker defense preparing to face 90 plays per game and ‘spend a lot of time on the field’

A reporter has to be mindful of hyperbole coming out of any college football training camp. Coaches and players tend to live in a bubble where the worst-case scenario — say, Kansas scoring 31 points in a game — becomes the perpetual scenario.

So when Nebraska defensive players were asked Tuesday about weathering 90 plays from the opposing offense, well, just know that no recent college football team faces that on a weekly basis. The highest per-game average over the last five years was the 2016 South Florida team, which faced 82.8 plays per game.

That said, NU’s defense this year could face more plays per game than, well, ever.

“The offense will move fast,” defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg said. “We’ll spend a lot of time on the field.”

Surely more than it did under previous coach Mike Riley. The Huskers faced an average of 68.8, 65.8 and 68 plays per game in 2017, 2016 and 2015 under Riley. Nebraska used a huddle — and burned play clock — helped reduce the amount of time, and thus plays, the opposing offense was on the field. In 2017, as bad as the defense was, it increasingly gave up bigger and bigger plays as the season wore on, reducing the amount of total plays NU faced. Minnesota ran just 61 playsIowa ran just 67.

Even at the end of the Bo Pelini era, when the Huskers were running a no-huddle, up-tempo offense, the Husker defense faced 71.5 plays per game in 2014 and 71.2 in 2013.

In new coach Scott Frost’s last year at Central Florida, the Knights’ defense faced 74.5 plays per game. And that was down from 77.5 in 2016. At Oregon, where Frost’s offenses perhaps moved even faster, the Ducks’ defense faced 80.5 plays per game in 2015, 77.9 in 2014 and 80.2 in 2013.

But nothing was quite as fierce as UCF’s final six games of 2017. The Knights faced 83.7 plays per game. That’s way up there.

So the grind is coming to NU’s defense. On Monday, Stoltenberg seemed to know it, too.

“You can’t take 70 snaps every game in the Big Ten as a defensive lineman,” Stoltenberg said. “That’s not going to work with the longevity of the season. We need bodies to roll in. You need guys to be fresh, to come in and contribute.”

On the defensive line, Nebraska’s set. NU line coach Mike Dawson could rotate 10 players with a straight face — Stoltenberg, both Davis twins, Freedom Akinmoladun, Peyton Newell, Vaha Vainuku, Ben Stille, DaiShon Neal, Deontre Thomas and Damion Daniels. It may not be that many but Dawson has those kinds of options.

The record for most plays-per-game faced by a Husker defense is almost certainly the 2007 defense, which faced 78.4 plays per game in the spread-happy Big 12. The 2004 defense faced 76.1 plays per game. The 2002 bunch faced the most total plays of any Husker defense — 1,008 — but just 72 per game in a 14-game slate.

The defensive-plays-per-game since 2007:

2007: 78.4

2008: 61.8

2009: 68.2

2010: 67.1

2011: 67.4

2012: 68.8

2013: 71.2

2014: 71.5

2015: 68.0

2016: 65.8

2017: 68.8

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