LINCOLN, Neb. – Thursday may have been Blackshirt day for the Huskers, but it also marked the first practice of the first game week of the year. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker, his staff and his players all looked ahead to Fresno State and offered their evaluations of the team with the season-opener approaching.
A coach is never satisfied, but even so, Banker said he is excited about seeing what kind of progress his defense has made from year one to year two.
“Just like the players, I can’t wait to see that happen,” Banker said. “Last season was last season and things obviously didn’t go the way you wanted them to go. There have been a lot of things that have gone on leading up to this season, but that’s life. Any time, especially this week, when you’re going through that phase and the game is getting closer and closer, the anticipation and the excitement grows. It will be fun to play for real with people keeping score.”
Nothing is a given until the players prove it in a real game, but linebackers coach Trent Bray said the team has definitely taken strides in practice.
“We’ve been coming along nicely,” Bray said. “We’re more consistent in our jobs, our communication is better, there’s just more comfort within the defense that has really shown up in our play.”
Fresno State’s up-tempo offense has been a focus for the Huskers during practice as they’ve tried to replicate the Bulldogs’ speed.
“They’re going to be tempo,” Bray said. “They’re going to tempo and making it not be a factor, so we’re practicing that way and getting those guys to understand you’ve got to get the call, get lined up, know what’s going on because that tempo’s going to be fast.”
Bray and company are familiar with new Fresno State offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau, who filled the same role at Washington in 2013. Bray said Kiesau likes to use a lot of motion to unsettle the defense.
Sophomore defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun said Saturday shouldn’t present any challenges the Huskers haven’t already prepared for in practice.
“The way that Coach has us do it, it shouldn’t be hard because you practice like you play,” Akinmoladun said. “The way Coach has it, we practice harder than what the game should be. So if I go out here and practice the way that I need to, the way that our D-line expects us to, I should go out to the game thinking, ‘OK, it’s just a really glorious practice.’”
One player the Huskers will have to keep an eye on is dual-threat quarterback Chason Virgil. The 6-foot-1 signal-caller split time as a freshman last year, throwing for 298 yards while completing 31 of his 56 attempts and rushing for 53 yards on nine carries.
“All the way back to high school a lot of people recruited him as a safety,” Banker said. “He’s a tough kid. Very, very competitive. A good athlete. Would have the ability to run the ball out of read zone concepts. He can get out of the pocket on you, all of that stuff. We’re playing an athletic quarterback.”
>> Five linebackers received Blackshirts on Tuesday, and Bray said he is hoping to get all of them involved in the game.
“It’ll be feel as the game goes on, but hopefully [we’ll rotate] often,” Bray said. “We want to keep those guys fresh so every play they can fly around and make plays and not get worn out.”
Senior Michael Rose-Ivey opened camp as a starter at one of the outside linebacker spots, but he missed a significant portion of fall camp with an injury and junior Marcus Newby was listed with the first string on the preseason depth chart released on Monday.
“He just continues to get better,” Bray said about Newby. “All fall camp he was very consistent. We know he has the physical abilities. Where he’s really grown is understanding that defensively he has to be within it.”
Rose-Ivey has returned to practice, however, and Bray said he feels great and hasn’t suffered any setbacks.
Bray said even those linebackers who aren’t necessarily in line for snaps on defense barring injury can make an impact on special teams, and in fact, doing so is the first step to earning a role on defense.
“First thing I always say at the beginning of spring and fall camp is that if you can’t play at special teams, you can’t play at linebacker,” Bray said. “For those young guys, I try to cement it in their heads early that’s your first way on the field. If you can run down and tackle on kickoff, you can run and tackle as a linebacker.”
Junior Chris Weber, one of the five given a Blackshirt, is still a consistent special teams contributor. Sophomore Tyrin Ferguson played immediately last year because of his ability on special teams, and senior Brad Simpson was awarded a scholarship this fall for the same reason. This year, Bray has challenged redshirt freshman Mohamed Barry to be that guy.
>> Banker spoke about the depth at cornerback, with true freshman Lamar Jackson and redshirt freshman Eric Lee Jr. being listed as the primary back-ups to juniors Chris Jones and Josh Kalu.
“Lamar has come along, but he’s still a true freshman,” Banker said. “I don’t think it’ll be perfect. Eric Lee has made strides. It was too bad that we lost him; we lost him for about a week-and-a-half there, quite a bit of practice time. Of course, we just absolutely love Chris and Josh because they really grew last year and now it’s really important for them to pick up where they left off and take it to another level.”
Jackson, a 6-foot-3 four-star recruit, isn’t burning a redshirt just to play on special teams; Banker said he will get a chance to see the field on defense as well.
“He will play in this game, no doubt,” Banker said. “As the game goes on, depending on the reps and how we’re doing and the standpoint of the length of series and what not, we’ve got to go ahead a play him.”
Cornerbacks coach Brian Stewart said Jackson has a steep learning curve when he first arrived, but that he was able to learn from the corners who had more experience.
“He’s young,” Stewart said. “It started off with him interpreting it his way, but I think being around Chris Jones and Josh Kalu helped him tremendously, and then watching Boaz Joseph and Eric Lee. When you see somebody do it exact, it’s easier for you to be exact than for you to go out there and do it yourself.”
>> Stewart shared what he is looking for in a recruit.
“I prefer long corners who can play the ball, but I also like fast corners,” Stewart said. “The faster guys tend to be like [Dicaprio] Bootle’s size. Bootle is extremely fast. That size guy is extremely fast. Fast or long, that’s where I want to live.”
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.