LINCOLN — Interceptions are harder to come by for Nebraska’s defense in training camp, defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It means quarterbacks are making smarter, more accurate throws.
“They’re not throwing up gimmes,” Fisher said. “...Good job of the offense not just giving it away in practice.”
Quarterback Adrian Martinez, Fisher said, is “putting the ball in great spots” that force defensive backs to commit interference to intercept a pass.
“It’s very tough to get balls on the back end,” Fisher said.
The offense started faster than the defense in the Sunday scrimmage, but the defense “started coming back” toward the end of the scrimmage,” he said.
Fisher said “all of the older guys” in the secondary are having a strong training camp, especially safety Deontai Williams and cornerback Dicaprio Bootle. Junior safety Marquel Dismuke has done a “180” in his approach since spring practice began, and sophomore Cam Taylor “has been all over the field” at all three positions. Fisher has tried to cross-train several other defensive backs, too.
He said he’s not concerned with the top group of defensive backs — which appears to be Williams, Dismuke, Bootle, Taylor and Lamar Jackson — but more with making sure the gap between the Nos. 1s and 2s, and 2s and 3s, shrinks as camp progresses.
“I think those guys are working pretty good in the 2 group — keep coming in, keep learning,” Fisher said. “I have a lot of freshmen in that group. They’re not going to know as much as the 1s do, but they’re learning.”
Fisher mentioned again that freshman cornerback Quinton Newsome is pushing for more playing time.
“Quinton’s a dog,” Fisher said. “He’s showing up each and every day, he’s making a play some kind of way, whether it’s in the run game, pass game. He’s learning so much.”
Newsome could play safety, too, and is learning the position, but the 6-foot-2, 180-pound recruit from Suwanee, Georgia, needs to “grind” in the weight room to tackle “270-pounders.”
Fisher said redshirt freshman cornerback Braxton Clark has been “tight in the hamstrings” and just began practicing Tuesday.
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‘I hope you’re all watching’
Williams is blunt and specific.
In the scrimmage on Sunday? In the first series?
“The first series, the offense kicked our butts,” he said. “The defense still got some things to work on.”
But after that first series, it was much better. Five stops in a row, he said.
Williams senses a much different attitude for this defense from last season. In preseason scrimmages last year, Williams said, the offense ran the defense off the field. But these Blackshirts are wired differently after that 4-8 season, he said.
“We hungry this year. We went 4-8. We don’t want 4-8 this year,” he said. “Last fall we had some players that were tired, but this year we have some guys who are gritty at heart and wanna make plays so bad. It’s just a different swagger this year, I feel like.”
Williams is the favorite to start at one safety spot. He said he believes all the safeties this year bring a “dog” mentality, but he especially likes what Dismuke has done early in camp.
“It’s gonna be a fun year,” Williams said. “I hope you’re all watching.”
Nelson ‘fun to coach’
Outside linebacker Alex Davis remains out of pads, so position coach Jovan Dewitt said backups — including Scottsbluff freshman Garrett Nelson — have received more reps in the scrimmage and practice.
Nelson is “such a physical kid by nature, and I think it really plays into his strengths,” Dewitt said. “Does he make mistakes? For sure. I just don’t see him flat-out getting beat quite a bit.”
Nelson has a “million and one questions” and is “always” in the film room and weight room, Dewitt said. All good things.
“He’s fun to coach,” Dewitt said.
JoJo Domann, who missed the early part of camp rehabbing an undisclosed injury, was part of the padded practice Tuesday. Dewitt said Domann was able to do some things in practice.
“The biggest thing is being mentally queued in,” Dewitt said. “It’s going to take time for anybody who comes into camp to get their sea legs back a little bit.”
Communication is key
The defense didn’t dominate Sunday’s scrimmage, Erik Chinander said. But the unit came away with one big-picture lesson.
Communication will be a key factor in how much the Blackshirts improve.
Busts Sunday — through assignment errors or miscommunication — led to productive drives for the offense. When the defense played cohesively, it was “salty” throughout, Chinander said.
“The offense came out with a really good tempo, I thought, that day,” Chinander said Tuesday. “Us being able to adjust to that tempo is going to be kind of the tale or the story here.”
The first group tackled well, he said, and was physical when it needed to be. The unit continued a fall trend of landing takeaways, the coordinator added, though just how much better Nebraska will be in that regard won’t be known until the season.
“I’m trying to instill in them we’re 4-8 until we prove it differently,” Chinander said.
Inside LBs come around
On paper, Barrett Ruud figured he knew who his top three inside linebackers would be. After 10 fall practices, Nebraska’s coach at that position is happy to confirm that he was right.
Mohamed Barry. Collin Miller. Will Honas. All have the physical ability and knowledge of the defense to log critical minutes this fall.
Miller, a junior, is playing “his best football he’s ever played” now that he’s focusing solely at an inside spot. Honas is fully recovered from a knee injury and is “faster than he was last year” after a summer of conditioning. Both are learning the strongside and weakside positions — that was “non-negotiable,” Ruud said — and will be key contributors even though a starter likely won’t be named until game week.
True freshman walk-on Luke Reimer is also pushing the second unit, Ruud said. Scholarship freshman and Omaha Burke grad Nick Henrich will return sometime this season, but Ruud said it likely won’t be during camp. The Huskers will ease him back following offseason shoulder surgery.
Freshmen Garrett Snodgrass and Jackson Hannah are the other scholarship players at the position. Gretna grad and walk-on Joseph Johnson also received praise in the spring for his performance.
Who’s a harder hitter?
Dismuke, when he’s been able to play for Nebraska, has made himself known as a hard hitter.
When asked if Dismuke hits harder than he does, Williams gave a smile and a side eye.
“Oh, c’mon,” he said. “He hit hard. He hit pretty hard. But harder than me? That’s impossible. I can’t even hit in practice because Frost won’t let me.”
Barry believes in group
Barry said he believes this is the best linebacking group he’s played with at Nebraska.
And his belief was reinforced during Sunday’s scrimmage.
“A lot of young guys came out and made plays,” Barry said. “Real impressive show by Luke (Reimer) and some of those young guys. It was a good day for us.”
Barry called the linebackers “stout.” He clearly pays attention to the narratives around the program.
“Coming into camp the questions were, ‘Is the linebacker group up? What’s the depth issues if I go down or if someone goes down, what’s gonna happen?’” Barry said. “I think if I go down or if anyone goes down, the next person is gonna be ready to come up.”
Barry said he’s been impressed with younger guys beyond Reimer, including Snodgrass and Hannah. Reimer has just picked up things more quickly, he said.
“In high school, you don’t really understand the defense, you just know what to do,” Barry said. “Your coach says A gap, it’s A gap. The position, it becomes so complex. But as a freshman, you want to show that you can make plays, you can run to the ball and you want to show the traits the coach recruited you for.”
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“We did look at a little bit of technique stuff,” Dewitt said, citing NCAA rules changes on crackback and wedge blocks. Dewitt added that NU has “certain standards” of where it wants coverage tacklers and return blockers to be on kicks, and the Huskers are hitting those standards more consistently.