Published Wednesday, December 25, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 11:04 pm
Nyatawa: Huskers sorting through nickels to make correct change
Gator Bowl: Nebraska vs. Georgia
When: 11 a.m. Jan. 1
Where: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.
Radio: 1110 AM KFAB

LINCOLN — What began as an explanation for his own improvement suddenly was morphing into a mock pep talk.

Ciante Evans wasn't lecturing Nebraska's young defensive backs. The Husker senior was sitting at a table this summer in front of a half-dozen reporters, his usually soft voice reaching an occasional crescendo. His knowledge was apparent.

How does a player find and build his confidence when he's trying to sort out the complexities of a nickel back position that's critical to NU's defense? How did Evans, who once would get confused by a motioning receiver, evolve into the proverbial coach-on-the-field type? How did he become the guy who calls out an offense's plays based on formations and alignments?

How does this transformation happen?

Evans' answer: “Make sure you're in the film room more than you're on the field.”

That's what he'd tell those young DBs.

And that's the challenge for whoever has interest in filling his spot next year.

Evans will end his Husker career Jan. 1 against Georgia, having spent three seasons at nickel — a position that could also be referred to as the third cornerback, or the outside linebacker, or the rover safety (whichever applies to the most recent play call).

“Ciante's been very good at that spot,” coach Bo Pelini said last week. “That's not an easy spot to play. We ask a lot of that guy.”

And the standard won't change just because Nebraska will be grooming someone new next season.

The nickel needs speed and agility to keep up with slot receivers. He has to play with a certain physicality and tenacity to hold up in the trenches against the run. He's asked to make plays in space and blitz off the edge.

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But there are more responsibilities. Many more. It took Evans a full year of failures to understand it all.

Evans will advise the younger Huskers to start building their football acumen as soon as possible. Figure out how Nebraska's scheme works for every position. Get an idea of how opposing offenses try to attack NU. Learn to identify tendencies.

“I try to tell the young guys about the mental aspect of the game,” Evans said before his All-Big Ten season. “It's fine to get reps, in seven-on-seven (drills) and stuff — but at the same time, during the (offseason) is when you need to be studying the most.”

In other words: Nebraska's search for a new nickel begins Jan. 2.

Pelini named a list of candidates after practice last week.

Ľ Sophomore Charles Jackson, who worked at nickel some last year. Coaches like the play-making potential of a hard-hitter like Jackson, especially when he's near the line of scrimmage.

Ľ Sophomore Jonathan Rose, a special teams contributor this season, who made a “big jump” this month, Pelini said.

Ľ Redshirt freshman LeRoy Alexander, who was praised all year for his pass coverage ability. He was also flying toward the point of attack to make plays in the run game more consistently by the end of the season.

Ľ True freshman D.J. Singleton, who enrolled last spring. He's been getting more reps with the top unit this month, Pelini said.

Ľ True freshman Boaz Joseph, who didn't get a shoutout as part of Pelini's nickel conversation last week, caught teammates' attention as a scout-teamer this fall. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound defensive back could factor into the mix, too.

Whoever it is, don't be surprised to see growing pains. Evans went through that as a sophomore, burned in key situations. Eric Hagg, who excelled in the role against the Big 12 spread offenses, needed a year to adjust, too.

There is the possibility that the nickel position in NU's defense will be less influential next season based on the teams that NU plays. The Huskers' biggest games in Big Ten play will be against Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan State — teams that don't regularly use three-receiver sets.

Still, matching speed for speed (and size for size) has always been key to Pelini's defensive strategy.

It's why Hagg and Evans, once they settled in at nickel as upperclassmen, never came off the field.

Versatility is valuable. And Pelini believes there are plenty of players on next year's roster who have the necessary athleticism. The mental maturation is what needs to happen next.

“We've had some guys who we're really going to count on next year really grow up,” Pelini said. “There's some young guys that might be off some other people's radar that I think are going to be very good football players for us.”

Let the competition begin.

Contact the writer: Jon Nyatawa    |   402-473-9585    |  

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football and baseball, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008.

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