It was a strange day in Nebraska's secondary on Tuesday.
The day started with the Huskers adding immediate, out-of-the-blue help in Mesa (Ariz.) Community College cornerback Will Jackson. In Nebraska circles, his was name known perhaps only to the coaches. But it made more sense later.
That's because the day ended with Notre Dame graduate transfer Nick Watkins telling Greg Smith that he was no longer planning to visit Nebraska. His was a name known to almost everyone in Nebraska, a potential Husker version of the transfer success story Mike Hughes wrote at UCF.
It looks like the latter door is closed now, so what do we make of the Huskers' cornerbacks here in June?
Nebraska's group hasn't become any more "proven" since the end of spring ball. Jackson, who signed with Kentucky out of high school, isn't starting from scratch. He at least has junior college games under his belt, making the jump to Power 5 football more of a half step than the full step some of the true freshmen options are facing. But there's still a jump to be made.
Yet I still find myself feeling slightly more bullish on Nebraska's situation as the season draws closer.
A big part of that is Dicaprio Bootle. When writing our defensive backs preview for the 2018 Yearbook, he was my pick for the "On the Rise" player. Last season wasn't a great one for any corner on the roster, but really sift through the Diaco detritus on film for what's still of use in 2018 and Bootle was doing some good things. (Exhibit A: The photo above, which, from the looks of it and based on what I remember of that game, had to be the best Nebraska tackle that night.)
Then there are also updates like this from Derek Peterson:
Speaking of Bootle, the Husker coaching staff actually had to rein the corner in this spring. He was hitting people too hard. Don’t mistake that for limiting his aggressiveness, but Bootle joked he was getting into too many fights on the field. I answered that’s exactly the mentality you want in a corner and he just nodded his head. He’s undersized for a corner at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, but it sounds like he’ll take your head off if you’re not paying attention.
If Bootle is able to lock down one of those corner spots, it already puts the Huskers ahead of where they were a year ago. Scheme and skill considerations aside, part of Nebraska's problem at corner in 2017 was that the pieces were virtually interchangeable. There was too little difference between playing Lamar Jackson, Eric Lee Jr. or Bootle. Somebody had to play to corner and too often it felt like just "somebody" did.
That will be less true in 2018, I think, because even small gains in activeness and aggressiveness –– two things Travis Fisher has been talking about since he arrived in Lincoln –– have the potential to produce noticeable results.
Per Football Study Hall's havoc rate –– a measure of, well, how much havoc a defensive unit creates as measured by forced fumbles, passes defended and tackles for loss divided by total plays –– Nebraska's secondary created a negative play just 3 percent of the time (against a national average of 6.5). That ranked dead last nationally. No unit was worse.
And if you think here is where I note that UCF's DBs were quite good at wreaking havoc, it's not. They were slightly below average at 6.4 percent in 2017. That was down from 2016 (6.4 percent, 47th nationally), which was up a full percentage point (5.6 percent, 82nd nationally) from what this staff inherited from the 2015 team in Orlando.
By getting back to above the norm in 2016 UCF went 6-7 in a year in which the offense was still finding its footing. With the offense at full speed in 2017, the burden on the defensive backs lessened a bit and a perfectly average havoc rate was perfectly fine for going 13-0.
How high can the Huskers climb in that category this year? It wouldn't surprise me if Nebraska doubles its total here. Same core group of corners, different mindset. If that happens, it would feel like a massive difference from 2017 without even being average on a national scale.
Gains like that wouldn't just be good in Year 1, with this position group in particular I think they're likely.
The Grab Bag
- CBSSports.com ranks the football coaches in the AAC.
- USA Today's Paul Myerberg predicts the biggest bowl matchups of 2018.
- Why more interim head coaches are landing the top job.
- ICYMI: Mike Babcock revisits the game Husker fans would prefer to forget –– 1982 Nebraska-Penn State.
Today's Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.