Photo by James Wooldridge
Nebraska Football

'Hits and Picks' Are in Jackson's Plans for 2018

March 28, 2018
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Lamar Jackson was still very much out of breath when he jogged off the Huskers’ practice field and set up camp near the second-floor tunnel connecting the Hawks Championship Center to Memorial Stadium. He’s added eight pounds of muscle and dropped two percent body fat during winter conditioning, but his body still wasn’t fully prepared for this. “A marathon,” he explained to media of what he’d just been through. “No talking too much after the play, you’ve got to just keep it flowing.”

It’s not just the practice tempo that’s new. The defensive back is on his third defensive coordinator in three years in Lincoln, and his third defensive backs coach. First it was Mark Banker, Brian Stewart and an aggressive 4-3; then it was Bob Diaco, Donte Williams and a scaled-back 3-4; now it’s Erik Chinander, Travis Fisher and an in-your-face 3-4 scheme.

“Of course you want to see stability so you can grow,” Jackson said of all the change in the secondary. “This is just going to slow it down even more, but it is what it is, I’m here, I play for Nebraska and I’ve got to take all obstacles head on. The only way I can look at it is it’s just bumping up my IQ. I’m learning a new system, learning a new technique each season so it’s just making me more versatile … At the end of the day, it’s just football.”

Two seasons in a row now, Jackson hasn’t particularly enjoyed watching his previous year’s tape. Last August, Williams chalked up a poor freshman campaign to maturity. Jackson’s now a junior with plenty of experience (and that above answer feels like a pretty strong endorsement of growth in that area).

As for 2017, Jackson didn't create a single turnover and only registered three pass breakups in 12 games. To put that into context, at least 50 other Big Ten players had more than Jackson's three. Two of them were defensive linemen. And yet, Jackson's biggest knock might have been his tackling. This year, it's about consistency.

“Just being a sure tackler,” Jackson said of his 2018 goals. “Me coming from offense, I’m still coming around. [I’ve] got to make tackles, got to hit big guys. It’s not that I’m scared or nothing like that, it’s just something I’ve got to get used to and I’ve got two seasons under my belt now and I feel like I’m finally prepared and ready to step up to the challenge and make a lot of plays that I need to make. 

“It’s coming around, I feel like I’m getting better. I’m going to be better. Just more want.”

Before the Huskers opened spring ball, Fisher talked about his own move from offense to defense during his playing career. “I basically had a choice to make,” he said then. “I just chose to be physical.” He’s expected the same from each secondary he’s coached. Fisher has been cross-training his defensive backs in order to put traditional cover guys in hitting situations and safeties in coverage.

Unlike last year, the safeties and the corners are all meeting together. In the film room, Jackson says they’re breaking down technique, alignment and any mistakes that might happen during practice. But, on the field there’s not much coaching in-between reps; it’s simple: go make a play.

“Coach Fisher kind of lets us have more fun, play a little more free as long as we’ve got the big picture,” Jackson said. That’s a slight departure from the technician-heavy approach of Williams last year. “As long as we’re making plays he’s going to let us do our thing so that’s exciting.”

It’s that “desire to excel and no fear of failure” motto in practice. Jackson said it breeds confidence. It’s freeing. Whereas last season when the secondary often times looked a step slow thinking about what to do, this year the job is easier.

“Now it’s kind of more like a bracket play with the secondary,” Jackson said. “We always know we’ve got help on the inside, we know what to break on and what we don’t have to break on. It honestly makes our jobs easier. 

“Sometimes you feel like you can’t be wrong.”

A reporter started to ask the former 4-star recruit if that style of coaching could free him up to be the kind of athlete that… “That I want to be, that I will be?” Jackson cut him off. “Yeah. I’m excited.”

There's a Ringer writer that's one of the most beloved figures in the sports media world, Shea Serrano, and he has a battle cry. “Shoot your shot.” This staff has embraced that mantra; Jackson says he hears it often. Shoot your shot, make a play. Jackson loves it.

"They’re giving us the freedom we want so it’s up to us to do it,” he said. “They’re going to put the best guys on the field and we’ve got to capitalize on opportunities, make our tackles, hit people hard. Hits and picks. That’s what I plan on doing.”

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