Don't Call it a Rebuild in Nebraska's Secondary
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Don’t Call it a Rebuild in Nebraska’s Secondary

August 04, 2019

Yeah, Lamar Jackson saw that PFF graphic this offseason. You know, the one that said he and his cross-field corner partner, Dicaprio Bootle, posted two of the three best forced incompletion rates in the conference last season?

Jackson referenced it on Thursday when the Huskers opened fall camp with a Scott Frost-and-friends press conference. “Just seeing the outside accolades and the completion percentage,” Jackson started, “we just pretty much know at the end of the day we did some stuff, but I’m not satisfied.”

It’s not a rebuild. It’s closer to a reload. Nebraska’s secondary is replacing some key cogs, but it has the potential to maybe be an even stronger group than it was in 2018 thanks to the pieces it returns.

The defense was a problem last season, but the back end of things wasn’t as bad as some might expect. The run defense offered little help and the Huskers still were fairly good at limiting the truly explosive pass plays (20th nationally in marginal explosiveness against the pass) and at keeping the quarterback out of rhythm (33rd in completion percentage against).

(Another factor working against Nebraska’s coverage last year was its quarterback pressure which, on paper, was weird. Nebraska was 112th in adjusted sack rate — the frequency with which it got to the quarterback, adjusted for opponent strength — but third in the conference in quarterback hurries. Hurries are generally noisy and unreliable but still… weird.)

All that to say: Nebraska feels good about its secondary situation. Really good, actually. Even considering it lost essentially three starting senior safeties in Aaron Williams, Tre Neal and Antonio Reed. 

“No steps back,” Jackson said. “In the secondary room I feel like there is a lot of confidence and we are ready to take it to the next level. We are all our personal motivators. For the most part, I think we have grown up as people. … Everybody is trying to recreate their destiny in a positive way and just make sure they do everything they can do on the football field to help themselves and help them get to the next level. A lot of guys have NFL dreams, and we are just trying to push each other and make sure we give our best.”

He and Bootle form a cornerback tandem that, if not one of the best in the Big Ten, it’s certainly one of the most experienced. Jackson played about as many snaps as he possibly could last season and got his first two career interceptions. Bootle led the Big Ten in pass break-ups (15). 

Tell Jackson he only had two picks though and he gets mad. “I've got to make more plays,” he says. “I can’t play that many snaps without more production.” Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher has two guys at either corner spot who are pretty darn good and not only hungry for team success, but still itching to prove themselves. 

In practices, Jackson and Marquel Dismuke — two California guys — line up on one side of the field and Bootle and Deontai Williams — two Florida guys — line up on the other. Then they go at each other. “We can’t let them outplay us,” Jackson says. It’s competitive.

That’s a unique situation for a pair of junior (Bootle) and senior (Jackson) corners with as much field time as these two have had to be in. 

“I don’t feel like I have done anything yet that I am really capable of,” Jackson said. “I’m the most confident I have been in a while. I feel like I have figured it out. Now I have to take this stuff that I have learned and put it on the field and put on display for the world and set myself up for a great future as well as Dicaprio. We're going to both ball, including the safeties. 

At the end of the year, if everybody does what they say they're going to do and do what they need to do, the numbers will speak for themselves. We are the best because we can be.”

Both Jackson and Bootle are on the team’s leadership council. Both are keeping the young guys in check. Add Cam Taylor to the mix, a sophomore who’s expected to play both corner and a little safety this season, and Williams, the fourth safety in the rotation last season, and the Huskers have some sauce to cook with.

Williams made plays every time he was on the field. He was just playing behind three seniors and wasn’t on the field much. Taylor has, by most accounts, taken one of the bigger Year-1-to-Year-2 leaps of anyone on the team. 

Taylor could factor in as the second safety or a guy like Dismuke, a junior who has spent most of this offseason working with the ones, starts next to Williams and Taylor operates as the first guy off the bench for the secondary. Add in another guy who can move around in senior Eric Lee Jr. and a bunch of talented freshmen and it’s not hard to see the picture Fisher has been piecing together. 

“We got a pretty close group,” Jackson said. “A group that works. A group that takes no days off. A group that wants to be better. A group that talks about the (NFL) and winning every day. We push each other. We want to be the best.”

That may end up being a difference-maker between this year and last. Not that those guys last year didn’t want to be great, but there’s a palpable change in energy this season. Around the team as a whole and the secondary room. 

Says Jackson: “ We are as confident as ever.”

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