A handful of players were sporting some new attire when the team walked off the practice field on Tuesday, and two of them are a member of the secondary.
Among the new Blackshirts are junior cornerback Lamar Jackson and senior safety Tre Neal.
Originally, sophomore corner Dicaprio Bootle was the only defensive back to get a Blackshirt when the first round were handed out. Senior safety Aaron Williams joined him a couple of weeks later.
Not getting a Blackshirt early on was a tough blow for Jackson as he was getting used to the new coaching staff.
“They kind of told me, ‘We hold you to a different standard because we want you to be a pro and we expect you to act like a pro,’” Jackson said. “At the end of the day once we saw eye to eye, I realized the coaches weren’t acting out of spite, it was more for me and my future to benefit me, I had no problem with going out there and working and improving and getting my spot back as well as the Blackshirt.”
Now, all four base starters in the secondary have their Blackshirts.
“[It shows] that my hard work is actually paying off, that I’m getting the respect of my coaches as well as my teammates in the locker room,” Jackson said. “I’m in a good place right now. I’m happy I got it.”
Jackson has had a tumultuous season. He opened as a starter and played basically 100 percent of the snaps until the coaches sent reserves in late against Michigan, but got benched for a combination of poor play and trash talk in the first half against Purdue. He was listed with the second unit in Nebraska’s depth chart ahead of the Wisconsin game.
“It was hard,” Jackson said. “I had it in me, I can say that. It’s not really too much more than just a mindset, I think. It’s a want-to to go do it. I’d never had to play behind anybody for a while. So when that happened to me, I had no choice but to tighten up.”
Jackson got back to work and earned his way back onto the field, playing in a rotation against the Badgers then regaining his full-time starting position against Northwestern. His last two games have been two of the best performances of his career. Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said he’s doing what the coaches are asking him to do and his performance in practice is carrying over to the games.
“He did a lot of great things in the [Minnesota] game,” Fisher said. “The last couple weeks he’s done a lot of great things in the game and is playing a ton of man coverage and it’s not easy. He’s been asked to do a lot of things in the football games to give us a chance and for the most part he’s doing a great job at it. I’d like for him to come down with some of these balls, let it become like an award for him for being in a great position on some of those plays.”
Bootle said he was happy to see his teammate’s work rewarded.
“That’s my brother,” Bootle said. “I’m happy for him. That’s something that he was working at. At the beginning when he didn’t get his Blackshirt, you can always see when a guy is a little disappointed. But it fueled his fire. He knew that he had to work, he knew he wasn’t where he wanted to be at. Over the weeks he’s been playing better and better. He’s been playing some of his best games he’s had since he’s been here. With that being said, he earned that thing.”
Jackson isn’t the only one in the secondary that has seen his snaps limited or his name moved down the depth chart at one point. So far, Fisher has seen a common response from those players.
“Any time a guy gets yanked during a football game, it’s only one of two things: either you can be down and stay down or you can get up and fight. Aaron, Lamar, Antonio [Reed], all those guys have been put in that situation this year and all three of them got up swinging,” Fisher said. “That’s what I want out of those guys … Nothing is given, everything is earned. It’s kind of set up for when they fail, getting back up swinging because nothing is given to them. So it doesn’t surprise me. I’m happy as a coach that I’ve got guys that can get up and swing after they’ve been knocked down on the ground. I’m proud to coach them.”
As for Neal, the graduate transfer from Central Florida has had a big hand in helping teach defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s system at Nebraska. However, the coaches didn’t feel it was right to give him a Blackshirt right away.
“He’s been doing a great job since he’s been here,” Fisher said. “He’s been doing everything right since he’s been here. Early in the year we just thought, maybe the Blackshirt… I don’t know, it’s just unique deal for him, not from here, from transferring in, maybe him being one of the first couple of guys to get a Blackshirt, I don’t think that’s sending the right message. I think he needed to grind and work for it just like the rest of the guys do and even though he was doing a lot of things right, I think now is the right time for Tre to earn one.”
Neal did not stop to speak after practice (he spoke during Monday’s press conference), but Bootle spoke about how the senior safety reacted to getting his shirt.
“He was humble about it, thankful to say the least,” Bootle said. “I just kind of told him he’s officially the GOAT now. He got his and I’m happy for him, I’m happy for all those guys that got their Blackshirts today because they earned it. It wasn’t given, they really earned those things.”
Defensive linemen Carlos and Khalil Davis also received their Blackshirts on Monday, boosting the total to 12 — four defensive backs, four linebackers and four linemen.