Just in time for Nebraska’s biggest test of the season when Wisconsin comes to Lincoln on Saturday, senior cornerback Chris Jones will make his return for the Huskers. Maybe.
“It’s really entirely up to him,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said after practice Tuesday. “I don’t have an opinion on that. I think the whole team is just letting him drive his own timing and tempo.”
Jones returned to the practice field this week for the first time since suffering a torn meniscus back in July. Diaco said the coaching staff is trying to remain cautious, but there’s an excitement in the air about the player who was All-Big Ten honorable mention from a season ago.
“We as an organization don’t want to get overly excited because we don’t want to put any undue pressure on him, but he looks really good,” Diaco said. “The things in play that might take a little while to connect the dots he’s doing a good job with.”
Specifically, Diaco likes the fundamentally sound look he gets with Jones at corner. The Huskers have rolled the ball out this season with sophomores Eric Lee Jr., Lamar Jackson and redshirt freshman Dicaprio Bootle, to varying degrees of success. Diaco likes the talent levels, but has said many times throughout camp and the first five games of the season that it’s a work in progress.
With Jones, Diaco, has a 6-foot, 195 pound, senior with 38 games of experience under his belt – more than Lee, Jackson and Bootle had combined before this season began. He likes the physical nature Jones plays the game with. He likes that Jones, at least from what he’s seen, doesn’t get caught out of position often. He likes that Jones doesn’t gamble and plays smart, sound defense.
“The hand signals, the calls, the checks,” Diaco said. “He’s really looked good the last few days.”
Corners coach Donte Williams isn’t surprised. Jones has shown him what he expected to see: one of the most talented corners in the conference. Head coach Mike Riley said Monday morning there’s a difference between being medically cleared and ready to go into a game on Saturday. Williams said Jones needs to get into football shape, finish learning the new defensive schemes and get his timing down.
“I hope one of these days he can step on the field and play,” Williams said, with slightly less optimism in his voice than Diaco had. “I don’t know when that will be but hopefully one day sooner rather than later.”
Diaco is hoping it’s sooner rather than later too, but not for selfish reasons – although Jones’ return figures to help the defense immensely. It’s more about wanting to see a veteran get his chance to get back on the field one more time.
“You’ve got seniors that aren’t participating and that’s sad,” Diaco said. “So it’s so great to see seniors back getting themselves ready to participate in their final opportunity to serve their university and state and teammates. That’s exciting to me, that those players are going to be able to play and do what they love.”
Other news and notes
>> Linebackers coach Trent Bray said the plan with injured outside backer Marcus Newby is to just “work him slowly back into it” and see how it goes.
Newby hasn’t played since exiting the Northern Illinois game with a hamstring injury back on Sep. 16.
Bray also added that linebacker Tyrin Ferguson is “feeling fine” after missing the Illinois game with an injury. Bray said Ferguson could have played against the Illini if they needed him to, but they didn’t need to push it.
>> Take away Jones for a minute, Williams is still pleased with what he’s seeing from the Huskers’ young secondary.
Nebraska held Illinois under 200 yards, with a measly 106 coming through the air. He didn’t like the two pass interference calls on Lee during the game, but he sees his defensive backs playing faster as their comfort within the defense continues to grow.
>> Linebacker Luke Gifford had some high praise for fellow freshman linebacker Ben Stille, who was named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Week following the Illinois win.
“The guy is a physical freak,” Gifford said. “That was pretty obvious right when he got here. He showed up and was a little bit lighter but he put weight on fast and got big and strong and fast and he was already a fast kid, so it’s cool to see him develop.”
Gifford is also fresh off a haircut so look for him to have a big game against Wisconsin on Saturday. That’s how that works right?
>> Nebraska’s defense has gotten markedly better in one key area over the last three weeks: red zone penetration.
After surrendering five trips inside the 20 in week one and six to Oregon in week two, the Huskers have held their last three opponents to two red zone attempts a piece. The defense has given up fewer and fewer chunk plays as the season has gone on (16 against Oregon down to 6 against Illinois) and is forcing opposing offenses to drive long distances just to have scoring opportunities.
When asked about what they stress in terms of red zone defense, Diaco said it’s all about points.
“It’s really just points, we want to keep the points down,” Diaco said. “We have a mathematic equation based on red zone penetrations versus the points.”
Diaco said playing defense in the red zone isn’t necessarily about scheme or calls, but about mindset.
“Red zone’s a culture piece,” he said. “We’re working on that. We’re a work in progress there.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.