Nebraska fielded one of the worst pass defenses in the country, but this year the secondary has become one of the Huskers’ biggest strengths. Senior safety Nate Gerry is the leader of #LockdownU, but junior cornerback Chris Jones is quickly becoming its biggest star.
More often than not, teams aren’t even targeting Jones in coverage any more. But when they do, he has proven himself to be a dynamic playmaker. Against Indiana, Jones recorded two tackles, two pass break-ups and an interception he returned for a touchdown.
Let’s take a closer look at each of those plays to see why Jones has become one of the better corners in the Big Ten.
First Pass Break Up
Midway through the first quarter, Indiana reached the Nebraska 36-yard line before the Nebraska defense stiffened up. Stuck in no-man’s-land between punting and kicking a field goal, the Hoosiers decide to go for
Nebraska lines up in press man, with Jones at the top of the screen across from Luke Timian.
Jones’s first responsibility is to makes sure the receiver doesn’t get outside of him, which he does with proper positioning and footwork. This is an area where Josh Kalu has struggled.
With the perimeter taken away, both receivers on the right side run inside slants. Jones runs step-for-step with the receiver.
Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow targets Timian, but the throw is slightly behind the receiver and bounces off his shoulder. However, Jones is right there when the ball arrives and makes sure Timian doesn’t have a shot to pull it down.
Even if he hadn’t broken up the pass, he was in position to drop the receiver well before the line to gain.
Jones could not have played it much better than he did.
Following Terrell Newby’s first rushing touchdown that put the Huskers up 10-0, Indiana started its drive at its 23-yard line.
Indiana lines up with two receivers to the left and two players in the backfield with Lagow. The receiver at the bottom of the picture is going to run a 9-route while the slot receiver runs an out. Notice how far away Nebraska’s safety and linebacker are.
On the previous drive, Indiana ran this same play and picked up 22 yards.
Lagow expects his target to be open and as you can see, he is. However, you can also see that Jones has figured out what the Hoosiers are doing and is breaking on the route.
Lagow makes a terrible throw and misses his open receiver by a mile, but because Jones sniffed it out he is in position to pick it off and does so.
Even if the throw had been on target, Jones would have been in position to make the tackle and limit the play to a gain of around 10 yards.
Jones makes the catch on the run and takes off downfield. Nate Gerry flies in to throw a huge block just inside the 20-yard line and Jones cuts back towards the middle of the field. He has a couple of blockers ahead of him as well.
Jones navigates his way through the traffic and wins the race to the end zone just before the offense can catch up to him.
Touchdown Nebraska. Huskers lead 17-0.
“The interception he got, that’s really not his play,” cornerbacks coach Brian Stewart said. “His guy ran a nine route. But they ran that play earlier in the game and they caught it. It’s a testament to him as a player – he saw it, he saw the exact same split, they did the exact same thing and he went and got it. That’s big-time.”
On the final play of the first quarter, Indiana has a first-and-10 at the 43-yard line. The Hoosiers set up a bubble screen on the right side.
The outside receiver, whom Jones is responsible for, takes off down field, the second receiver blocks and the third loops around to catch the ball. Notice Nebraska only has two players on that side, with safety Nate Gerry the next closest inside of the hash marks.
The first blocker picks off Aaron Williams. Jones initially back-pedaled about 5 yards, but he quickly sniffs out the screen and changes direction. Jones uses a dip-and-rip technique, faking the inside move then going back outside.
The move works perfectly and Jones gets past the would-be blocker. Williams wasn’t so lucky with his blocker. The receiver, Mitchell Paige, takes off up the sideline and Jones runs to meet him.
Jones knocks Paige out after a gain of 4.
Had Jones not diagnosed the play when he did and allowed himself to get caught on the block, the play could have gone for a first down if not more.
“Just watching film, we kind of knew they were going to run bubbles,” Jones said. “We knew that we were supposed to attack the bubbles. There were a couple incidents where I didn’t attack it how I should but on that specific play I attacked it, got through the blocker and it was just me and him one-on-one. He didn’t see me until the last second.”
Second Pass Break Up
Fast forward to the third quarter (unsurprisingly, Indiana didn’t target Jones much in the second). The Hoosiers have a third-and-4 near midfield and have their running quarterback, Zander Diamont, in the game.
Mark Banker dials up some pressure, sending two defensive backs on a blitz off the left side and stunts the defensive end inside the tackle. Jones is lined up in tight man against Ricky Jones on the other side of the field. Jones runs a quick slant.
The pressure forces a quick throw. Jones could have done a better job of jamming the receiver at the line, but his footwork is good.
Jones breaks on the ball and hits the other Jones right as the ball arrives, and the receiver can’t hold on. Pretty good coverage by Jones, but the receiver probably should have caught the ball, right?
Actually, a closer look shows that Jones punched the ball out of the receiver’s hands for the pass break up.
Instead of a first down in Nebraska territory, Jones forces Indiana to punt the ball away.
On second-and-6 at the Nebraska 35, Indiana
runs another screen to Ricky Jones. Jones starts in the slot then flares out toward the edge. Jones is lined up about seven yards deep.
The outside receiver tries to get down field to block Jones, but Jones realized what was coming almost right from the snap and is already moving forward.
Jones’ quick reaction allows him to beat the block, and he’s one on one. Linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey is closing from the middle of the field, preventing the cutback.
Jones gets his hands on him and pulls him down two yards shy of the line to gain.
Nebraska stuffed the Hoosiers on the next two downs to force a turnover on downs.
The Nebraska secondary has made a massive turnaround from last season, going from a major weakness to one of the team’s biggest strengths.
“I think from a corners standpoint, everything we do is tied into our footwork,” Stewart said. “Once we mastered our footwork, we understood what footwork went with what defense, we had an opportunity to be pretty good and that’s where we’re at now.”
Who has the best footwork on the team?
“That’s an easy one: Chris Jones.”
Jones has always been a great athlete. Now, he’s supplementing that athletic ability with extra time in the film room (see above for the blown up screen plays) and better technique. Jones’ improvement has set the tone for the rest of the corners.
“It’s a change from what they’ve done in the past and you’ve got to want to do it and understand why you do it, and he’s done a good job doing that,” Stewart said. “With him starting off doing it at a consistent level, it was easy for the other guys to see and then just join in, use the correct footwork and understand.”
As Jones showed against the Hoosiers, he is quickly becoming a star. Nebraska has seen its share of talented corners in recent years with the likes of Prince Amukamara and Alfonzo Dennard. If Jones can continue along this trajectory, he’ll force himself into that discussion.
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.