If there’s one game that bothered Travis Fisher the most from last season, it’s the Northwestern game. “That game was right down my alley,” the defensive backs coach said Tuesday during a sit-down with the media. His corners were tested and his safeties were put on islands by a Wildcat offense that threw it 64 times. Slot receiver Flynn Nagel had 12 catches for 220 yards, with crucial receptions on Northwestern’s final game-tying drive while going against safety Aaron Williams.
You wish your guys could make the plays when they came to them, Fisher said, because the plays came and Nebraska didn’t make them.
“I had to apologize to Coach [Erik] Chinander after that game,” Fisher said. “Wish I could have that one back.”
But the second-year coach used film from that game all throughout the back half of the 2018 season and says he’ll continue to use it. Sort of a “remember where you were and what got you there” deal.
Nebraska’s defensive backs, from that point on, have been different.
There’s the on-the-field stuff you can look at, like seven interceptions in the back half of the season compared to four in the first half, or the improved pass defense. But there’s also some of the more intangible stuff.
Reports from strength coach Zach Duval to head coach Scott Frost suggested the defensive backs, one of the strength staff’s least-favorite groups to work with a season ago, have now become a favorite.
“We know in past years they’ve talked down about DBs at Nebraska,” sophomore corner Cam Taylor said. “We want to change that.”
Dicaprio Bootle, a junior corner who led the Big Ten in pass breakups last season, has gone from soft-spoken to a vocal leader. Lamar Jackson, the oft-criticized senior opposite Bootle, seems to be taking a similar position within the room. Fisher sees his unit getting tighter.
Bootle is getting more comfortable being that enforcer when his teammates aren’t doing what they’re supposed to. Taylor, Fisher says, is a natural-born leader coming into his own. The rest of the group has gotten better about taking criticism and building from it, rather than wilting.
“That deal is just about as close-to-the-hip as it can get, and neither [corner or safety] works without the other,” he said. “That’s the way I coach it, that’s the way the foundation is built in the room.
“It doesn’t work on my end unless it works on your end. They can see in coverage, they can see how my mistake hurts you and how your mistake hurts me. When you have a close secondary like that, me having to let you down, I feel it a little bit. That’s kind of where I want it. It’s not about letting me down, Frost down, it’s about letting your brother down to your left and right.”
Fisher also has his guys competing every minute of every day.
When he got to Lincoln, he told his group about being roommates with NFL great Asante Samuel and challenging each other in every little thing they did, even away from the football field. Even as crazy as who could get more sleep each night. “When I first got here, it was kind of shaky,” he said, but he’s starting to see that mentality take hold within his group.
Of course, it helps when you bring in a bunch of talented defensive backs each of your first two years and tell your holdovers the new guys are coming to take their spots, the way Fisher has done.
In the fall, Nebraska will be adding Myles Farmer (who Fisher says is already his biggest safety), Quinton Newsome and Noa Pola-Gates (not as big as others, Fisher says, but more explosive). Taylor, from last year’s class, is already pushing people. Cam Jones earns praise every time Fisher or Frost talk about the defensive backs.
“It’s going to be very competitive,” he said. “I want it to be very competitive. I’m going to make it be very competitive. Some guys aren’t going to like me because of it, but it’s going to be very competitive in the room and that’s what makes that secondary room a great secondary room.”
And when the group met for its Tuesday meeting, Fisher opened by telling the room no one had a job locked up.
“There are absolutely no starters,” he said. “I made that comment today. Let’s start the meeting off that way, let’s learn, let’s get better, let’s compete and let’s figure it out.”
Maybe even more so than last season, Fisher doesn’t feel like he’s going to lose his group by pushing.
“He just woke up the competition,” Jackson said. “If you don’t feel like practicing then you’ll get exposed today by someone — coach or the chart or whoever it may be. You have to be ready to go. Each and every day Coach Fisher is running them dudes and he is going to give it to you just how it is. What you put on film is what you are. If I am showing Coach Fisher a certain way or effort, he is going to let it be known and he is going to reciprocate the coaching practice. ‘If you don’t want to practice today, then I don’t want to coach you, go sit on the sideline.’ It is like that. If you want to be a part of this team then be a part of this team and know what it means.”
If the cost of his players reaching their potential is Fisher not being liked, that’s what it costs, he says. “But I’d rather be that guy and get a W than be the other guy and get the L.”
Fisher called Jackson a “done pancake” who needed flipping. The Cali export has been perhaps the most-prodded-at member of the Husker secondary since Fisher took over, but it’s only because the coach sees Jackson’s ability.
“He was brought here to be an elite corner, be able to lock down receivers, and that’s why he wanted to come here,” Fisher said. “I don’t necessarily know if Lamar’s been put in the right situation, and I told you guys this before when I first got here, [he needed to be] held accountable.
“He’s bought into that a bit and turned a bit.”
He also said he’s still working on trying to get Jones, a redshirt freshman safety, to commit to the classroom as much as the field.
“I first want to get Cam to understand that without the classroom, there’s no football. Without this right here — the classroom, books — that dream is no dream. It’s all fake,” he said. “Cam is doing a great job on this end [the football side of things], we’ve got to make sure we grind the screws on him in the spring on this end [the school side] so he can flip on the field. He’s doing a great job right now, but [school] is going to allow him to make himself known.”
You can appreciate Fisher’s candor. His room has taken steps, it’s way past where it used to be, but there’s still growth that needs to be made. Which also means there are spots up for grabs all over the place.
Frost said Jackson and Bootle both have the ability to play safety, not just corner. Taylor said he’s working at safety a bit as well after the graduation of three senior safeties a year ago. Fisher said JoJo Domann has “blown up” in the weight room and is currently up to 230 pounds — linebacker weight — but still a part of his room, too. Deontai Williams was Fisher’s most athletic safety a season ago and looking like a difference-maker.
“Last year was all about making the room strong, it wasn’t about making individuals strong,” Fisher said. “I wanted to have four or five safeties that could play in a football game instead of one safety with experience.”
Asked if that means there will be less rotation this season, Fisher said no.
“I hope not. I honestly hope not. I hope my freshmen come in and make impacts,” he said. “I’ve got some guys [this year]. No, I don’t want to have two safeties playing in a game. I want to have five.”
But getting there means strong offseasons from young players. It means attention to detail on the practice field and in the meeting room. Which is where an old-but-new “no phones” rule in Fisher’s meeting room comes into play. Every player drops their phone in a basket when they enter the room. Looking down at a text you don’t need to be looking at, Fisher says, means you’re missing something he’s trying to teach.
For 30 minutes, he wants undivided attention. Because those 30 minutes could be the difference between a new guy starting or not. Those 30 minutes could be the difference between a guy knowing what to do when Flynn Nagel is running at him on a third down in the fourth quarter of a close game or coming up short.
“Those 30 minutes are going to win us a championship,” Fisher says. “I believe that.”