“When is Nebraska going to teach these guys to turn their heads around?”
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard or seen that question from Nebraska fans over the last few years.
There’s no question that Nebraska has struggled to cover down the field in recent years. Even this season, the Huskers are giving up 280 yards per game through the air at a 61 percent completion rate with 11 touchdowns. Nebraska has seen more than its fair share of pass interference calls go against Dicaprio Bootle, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Williams and others.
Even so, defending the pass isn’t always as simple as “just turning your head.” Doing so at the right time isn’t easy, and sometimes it might be impossible.
“We’ve been repping a lot of it since I’ve been here,” defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said. “Those guys are doing a better job — you can see it, they are doing a better job of trying to get their head around on some of the passes. You know, some of the passes that they didn’t get their head around, I don’t want to make excuses for them, but some passes you cannot get your head around, some passes you can. The ones that are under-thrown and stuff like that before you even get in phase, you can’t get your head around.
“They’re learning different techniques and some of those techniques are not for them to turn their head around until a certain time. They’re doing what they’re coached to do and trying to do a better job. I’ve got to do a better job of keeping coaching them every week and for the most part it’s getting better. I’d like just for those guys to get the reward and get some of those interceptions.”
Nebraska has already surpassed last season’s total for pass break-ups with 34 in seven games compared to 28 in 12 in 2017. Bootle has 13 by himself. The Huskers got off to a slow start converting those PBUs into interceptions, but they do have three of them in the last two games after snagging just two in the first five. Fisher said he’s noticed a difference in execution and technique.
“They’ve improved a lot, a whole lot,” Fisher said. “From the time I got here, with technique and just learning the ins and outs of the position and just competing and just keeping that technique-first attitude: ‘this is how I win with playing technique, by having good technique this is what happens.’”
There’s no better example of that improvement than Jackson, the junior from Elk Grove, California. He opened the season as a starter but found himself benched mid-way through the season. Since then, however, he’s regained his starting spot, put forth two of the best games of his career and earned a Blackshirt.
“The technique’s good,” Jackson said. “Each week I feel like we’re improving. Like the coaches said, if you look at early on in the season and you look at now, I’m just a totally different player. It’s like the things you don’t really realize, stuff just gets smoother, you start doing stuff more, your instincts get a little better and it’s really all just, like they say, when the stuff hits the fan you fall back on your training and that’s exactly what’s been going on — the training has been prevailing and showing more than the bad so I’ve been able to be successful.”
Jackson isn’t the only one who has bounced back from bad performances in the secondary. Aaron Williams had one of the worst games of his career against Northwestern trying to cover Flynn Nagel in the slot. He was a completely different player against the Gophers, though, recording six tackles and breaking up two passes after giving up a catch every time the ball came his way against the Wildcats.
“Aaron had a great game,” Fisher said. “I think Aaron and Dicaprio and Lamar, those guys had great games in the back end. Even though Dicaprio got player of the week, I think Aaron could have easily gotten the same thing.”
Nebraska’s secondary still has a long way to go, but its performance against Minnesota is a step in the right direction. With a date with Ohio State and Dwayne Haskins on the horizon, Nebraska is going to need to continue that upward trajectory on defense.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. 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.