LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander isn’t handing out Blackshirts before the Husker defenders play their first game. It’s the first time since 2014 — when Bo Pelini was coach — that NU chose not to hand them out before the season.
Chinander gave two reasons: too many “ORs” on the depth chart mean some starters haven’t yet been identified, and NU’s most recent defensive performance, a 56-14 loss to Iowa in 2017, requires a “live evaluation” against Akron for atonement.
“I don’t feel like anybody deserves one yet before we see what they can do in Memorial Stadium,” Chinander said. When he does hand them out, he doesn’t expect to award more than 11, but the count may be fewer than that.
“We’ll go with who deserves them,” Chinander said. “It might be one, it might be 11. I doubt it’ll be more than 11.”
Under Pelini, NU handed out Blackshirts before the season once, in 2013. Otherwise, Pelini required players to earn their black practice jerseys with game performance. Prior to Pelini, the general tradition was to hand them out before the first game. Over the summer, Chinander said he consulted with former defensive coordinator Charlie McBride and other former Husker defenders about how to handle the tradition.
CB reserves prepared to play
Nebraska’s defensive depth chart lists seven “ORs” between players. Chinander said most of those indicate position battles that will be decided by real-game evaluations.
One group with more clarity is the cornerbacks — but that doesn’t make their early-season performance any less interesting.
Consider that the starters on the NU depth chart are junior Lamar Jackson and sophomore Dicaprio Bootle. Both endured high-profile struggles last year, but they have also combined to play in 37 of a possible 37 career games.
The backups, meanwhile, are a pair of true freshmen in 6-foot-4 Braxton Clark of Orlando, Florida, and 6-foot Cam Taylor of Montgomery, Alabama. Neither enrolled early.
“They jumped in with both feet into deep water and started swimming and never looked back,” Chinander said. “That’s a good thing with young guys. Are they mature enough? Are they ready enough? Probably not. But sometimes baptism by fire isn’t a bad deal, either. We’re going to find out.”
Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said Taylor — a dynamic high school quarterback from Alabama — conducts himself like an upperclassman. Watching extra film. Going to sleep early. Not missing a day of practice despite occasional nicks. Clark, too, has shown improvement after a few months of weight training and nutrition within the program.
Fisher said he doesn’t plan to rotate his corners much, though ideally everyone will play if a game is going well. The coach said he believes a culture of competition will have his reserve backs prepared to contribute when necessary.
“They’re getting ready,” Fisher said. “I don’t want to say ready — ready means they don’t have to practice anymore. But they’re getting ready.”
Defensive mindset: ‘Get the ball’
For Jackson, boiling down the expectations of Nebraska coaches for the defense is pretty simple.
Take the ball away from the opponent.
“The ball is most important with our defensive coaches,” the cornerback said. “They don’t really care too much about anything else besides turnovers. They preach turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Forced fumbles. Get to the ball. Get the pick. Make a play on the ball. Why are you not doing that? Even if you’re in good position, if you get a (pass breakup), they’re going, ‘What? Get the ball!’ They preaching turnovers.”
Jackson said he intercepted four passes during fall camp and estimated that everyone in the secondary snagged at least two apiece.
UCF finished second nationally in turnover margin last year at plus-17 and was 54th in 2016 when Scott Frost and his staff took over. The Knights were 127th out of 128 schools in 2015. Nebraska, meanwhile, tied for 106th at minus-7 a season ago.
Defensive line coach Mike Dawson said there’s a strong correlation in his position group between effort and takeaways. Active hands. Diving on balls. Stripping the running backs.
“We gotta turn out,” Dawson said. “We better see some results when we get out there as far as getting the turnovers.”
True freshman’s role will grow
Outside linebacker Caleb Tannor — one of several Husker true freshmen to make the depth chart — will initially have a role tailored for success, outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt said. The role will grow as the season progresses and he’s able to handle more responsibilities.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Tannor was a four-star recruit out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, and a 2018 signing day steal away from SEC schools such as Florida and Auburn. Tannor’s physical ability has been as advertised. Dewitt said he has been pleasantly surprised by how much Tannor’s teammates have tried to help him get up to speed.
“Not only does he have the ability to run and change direction and do those things, but he learns from mistakes he’s made in the past,” Dewitt said. “You’re allowed to make a mistake. Just don’t make the same mistake twice.”
Junior Alex Davis — also on the two-deep — is one of NU’s most improved players. In winter and spring, Dewitt said, Davis’ moves “seemed mechanical,” and he needed “constant feedback in a lot of different aspects of the game.”
“What I’ve seen out of ‘Ace’ is the ability to anticipate the call now and be a little bit more fluid in his movements,” Dewitt said.
Preparing for different kickoffs
Dewitt wasn’t ready to divulge just who’d return kickoffs — JD Spielman and Jaron Woodyard top the depth chart — but Nebraska has “repped the snot” out of kickoff returns given the NCAA’s changes to the return rule.
Players may now signal for a fair catch inside their own 25-yard line and give their team a touchback that moves the ball to the 25. But if the player drops the kickoff, the next snap happens where the ball was recovered.
Dewitt said he’s not sure what Nebraska will see. Some teams may become “lax” in their kickoff coverage, which may lead to longer returns. Other teams may use low squib kicks that eliminate fair catches but also create the opportunity for big returns if the kicks are executed poorly. Dewitt wouldn’t say what Nebraska’s strategy might be for its own kickoffs.
“It’s all going to depend on the talent of the guy catching the ball back there, to be honest with you,” he said.
» Outside linebacker Tyrin Ferguson received a “clean slate” with the new coaching staff and has impressed Chinander with hustle, work ethic and enthusiasm around teammates. The junior from New Orleans is listed as a starter at outside linebacker. Dewitt said Ferguson understands “conceptually” what NU wants in its defense.
» Akron runs a spread offense, Chinander said, so there isn’t much the Zips can do schematically that Nebraska’s defense hasn’t already seen from its offense.
» Fisher said the top players for nickel packages are Bootle and Ethan Cox, a redshirt freshman from Blair.
Cox, he said, “has been solid, he’s been flying around, he’s been doing a lot of great things for us. Most important for Ethan is he’s been competing.”
» Senior safety Aaron Williams had a standout practice Tuesday, Fisher said, and is handling well the transition into yet another defensive system. Williams has played in 35 career games, but injuries limited him to nine last year. He’s listed as a co-No. 2 safety with juco transfer Deontai Williams behind Antonio Reed.
“I know his urgency wanting to get back on the field and wanting to do this and wanting to do that,” Fisher said. “He’s a little behind because he missed so many days of live contact. But he showed up today. We went live a little bit today and he showed up and he showed himself that he’s getting in shape and getting ready to play.”
» Asked about a fellow Californian leaving the team, Jackson (Elk Grove) said he understands why Gebbia (Calabasas) made the decision to move on.
“Even through the battle, through the spring, I’d asked him how he was doing and he was (like), ‘I’m nervous, I’m nervous,’” Jackson said. “So I’m pretty sure this wasn’t something that just happened. He kind of probably had this in his head.”
Akron at Nebraska
When: 7 p.m. Saturday (2 p.m. Pregame)
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
Radio: 103.1 FM