LINCOLN — Lamar Jackson is a Nebraska cornerback. And there’s no place to hide out on the edge of the field, away from the scrum of the trenches. When a cornerback is beat, every eyeball in the stadium knows it. And Jackson knows every eyeball is on him when it happens.
So when Jackson gave up a 51-yard pass at Oregon — a receiver ran right by him and caught the ball after stretching out — Jackson knew that play was on him. And he couldn’t stop replaying the mistake in his mind.
Cornerbacks coach Donte Williams saw it in Jackson’s eyes. The doubt. The weight of a mistake. Jackson’s confidence — the lifeblood of any cornerback — was momentarily shot.
“Don’t come talk to me until you’re ready to play football,” Williams told Jackson.
“That’s the type of relationship we’ve got,” said Jackson, a sophomore who just started his third career game. “He knows I can be better. He saw it in my face that I wasn’t there mentally. I started veering off my technique, and I started questioning my ability. That started creating more problems. That’s what caused me to keep making mistakes.”
With the rise of spread, no-huddle offenses, cornerbacks are a cherished commodity. Coach Mike Riley calls good cornerbacks “gold.” Nebraska hired Williams away from Arizona — giving him a hefty raise — to recruit the kind of cornerbacks that, frankly, Ohio State routinely gets. NFL guys. Fast, athletic and aggressive.
Right at this moment, the cornerbacks are the most inexperienced unit on the roster. Two-year starter Chris Jones is hurt. Joshua Kalu moved to safety, and now he’s hurt, too. Jackson played in just two games last season. Eric Lee was a special-teamer buried on the depth chart. Dicaprio Bootle was redshirting. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco says the corners are “developing,” and his passive pass-rush scheme thus far indicates that, to some degree, he’s protecting them.
Oregon might have been their toughest test of the season. Quarterback Justin Herbert was accurate. Oregon receivers, Williams said, were “feisty” and “physical.” His corners, in retrospect, were “a little bit shell-shocked” by the atmosphere at Autzen Stadium, the opponent and the ease with which the Ducks moved the ball in the first half.
“The secondary, we’re still learning,” Williams said. “Even the guys who have played, they’re playing new positions. That day, we weren’t ready. And we will be ready from now on. I promise you.”
Williams wasn’t necessarily talking about physical preparation. It’s the mental stuff. It’s having “clean eyes,” as Lee likes to say, and relying on what film study told you during the week. It’s being ready at the snap of the ball and lining up correctly. It’s sweating the small stuff, sometimes at a breakneck pace against offenses like Oregon.
And it’s knowing, at some point in a game, you’re going to get beat and recovering from it accordingly.
Take Bootle. Oregon’s first touchdown was a deep-yet-underthrown fade thrown on him. Bootle kept stride with his guy but didn’t turn and find the ball. Boom. Touchdown.
“It was kind of tough on me,” Bootle said. “I looked around, and it was a sense of, ‘I let my brothers down.’ I feel like that started everything off.”
Bootle knows he plays a position where “you mess up once, everybody sees it.” If he’s in man coverage, he’s not getting help, except from a pass rush. Both Oregon and Arkansas State’s quarterbacks got rid of the ball so quickly at times that any pass rush was nullified.
So a good corner has to have the confidence he can get it done. Bootle stuffed a bubble screen in the second quarter. He didn’t give up another deep ball.
“I could have easily let that one play put me down for the rest of the game,” Bootle said. “I could have given up a whole bunch of other catches. But I stuck with it and just kept playing.”
Lee can see when a cornerback doesn’t believe in himself just by how he lines up.
“If a corner is 14 yards off the ball, he’s not very confident in his ability,” Lee said. “Be confident and have that swagger about yourself of, ‘This is why I came here.’ I came here to specifically to shut this wide receiver down. That’s the mentality you have to have the whole game.”
Corners also should invite their defensive coordinator to rely on them, Lee said.
“Man-to-man coverage should be your favorite coverage, and press should be your favorite kind of alignment,” Lee said. “Whenever you get to play zone, you’re not taking a play off — you’re putting yourself in a position to make plays — but, definitely, mano-a-mano is the best way to do things.”
Jackson was mano-a-mano in the third quarter when Oregon tried to test him again.
Different receiver. Similar route. But Jackson clearly knew where his help was, so this time, Jackson didn’t let the receiver run by him. The Duck cut inside, and Jackson pirouetted around, found the ball and tipped it to teammate Aaron Williams for an interception.
After Williams got up, he slapped hands with Bootle, linebacker Dedrick Young and safety Antonio Reed. But he wasn’t leaving the field until he found the guy most responsible for the play. So he waited, walked over to Jackson and gave him the biggest slap of all.
It’s just one of the more than 100 passes NU’s corners have faced already, but it was arguably the most valuable one.
Would you rather have a Big Ten game or nonconference game in the first week of the season?
The Huskers open their season with Purdue on Sept. 5, 2020. NU last opened a season against a conference foe in 2003, when the Huskers beat Oklahoma State. Would you rather have a conference game or nonconference game week one?