Nebraska's veteran corners must improve with pressure from newcomers, Travis Fisher says

Nebraska defensive backs coach Travis Fisher is calling on his incoming freshmen to push for a starting spot. "They’re here to take over this deal," he said.

WAHOO, Neb. — In the quiet and mostly empty clubhouse of Hilltop Country Club Tuesday morning, Travis Fisher balled up his fist and tapped the chest of his black polo.

Nebraska’s secondary coach didn’t have to say the word “heart,” but there wasn’t any doubt what he meant. And it’s what he wants from NU’s defensive backs — particularly the cornerbacks. He knows eyeballs will be on the defenders who struggled most in 2017. His eyeballs are on them, too. He wants them to play with the kind of toughness and technique that will allow defensive coordinator Erik Chinander to be as aggressive with his schemes as he likes to be.

Lamar Jackson, Eric Lee and Dicaprio Bootle — the three corners who started for Nebraska but had a combined zero interceptions — are thus on notice. Get better, or Fisher’s playing the freshmen. He met Monday night with the entire secondary to drill home the message.

“They’re not here to wait and they’re not here to sit around and they’re not here to be babysat. They’re here to take over this deal,” Fisher said of freshman defensive backs Cam Taylor, Cam’ron Jones, CJ Smith and Braxton Clark. “They’re expected to play this year. I wanted the older guys to hear that. I also wanted the older guys to hear, ‘It’s not your job to give that spot up.’ Let’s make this deal competitive.”

Over 15 minutes, Fisher was candid about the progress and status of his defensive backs, who gave up a Big Ten-worst 7.3 yards per pass attempt last season.

Fisher said he’ll continue to challenge Jackson, Lee and Bootle. Lee, for example, “set himself back in the spring” and “felt like he had to question the love for the game a little bit.”

“The three guys that played corner last year ... those guys need work,” Fisher said.

He tapped his heart.

“You work your butt off, if you don’t have it in here, when the lights comes on, it won’t show,” Fisher said. “Sometimes you can get a younger guy, maybe like a Cam Taylor, who has a whole bunch of (tapped his heart), he don’t really have the knowledge that Lamar would have, and we’d rather roll with that guy. Because you know that guy’s going to give you everything he got. He’s not going to shy away from tackles. He’s going to compete. Those are issues. The good thing is, now you have guys to push guys. That’s when it really starts.”

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Chinander sang Fisher’s praises at the Wahoo stop of the Husker Nation Tour. When Chinander followed his friend and boss, Scott Frost, to Central Florida, the plan had been to “clean house” on the remaining UCF coaching staff. But Chinander heard too many good things about Fisher from players, boosters and other coaches.

“He knows how to coach technique better than anybody in the country,” Chinander said. “We’re very lucky — I’m very lucky — to have him as part of the staff.”

Fisher, who played eight seasons in the NFL, is a stickler for good technique, but he also wants the right attitude — an understanding of why guys want to play and a strong grasp on why they love the game.

Jackson — the top-rated prospect in NU’s 2016 recruiting class — was among the players who “came a ways” in spring practice.

“He’s not there yet,” Fisher said. “He’s still going back and forth with some of the things he did last year. He’s inconsistent, but at least he shows it. He’s not just a blank body out there. He actually has potential.”

Ditto for safety Antonio Reed. Reed “is not mentally there” yet, but physically, Fisher said, “he can do probably as much as any safety in the country.”

“I’ve got to keep grinding him, grinding him, stay on top of him, don’t let my foot off him,” Fisher said. “He’ll be a good one.”

Fisher said Aaron Williams had shoulder surgery but will be ready for preseason practice. Hybrid corner/safety Deontai Williams from Jones County (Miss.) Junior College is probably the best overall athlete among the defensive backs. Marquel Dismuke is a “late bloomer” whose body doesn’t look like he’s been at Nebraska two seasons. That will get corrected, Fisher said, during strength and conditioning sessions in the summer. Like most defensive backs, Fisher said, Dismuke is not an “80-, 90-rep” guy.

And Fisher fully expects Nebraska’s defense to face that many offensive plays at times this season. Frost’s spread, no-huddle, fast-paced offense puts a defense on the field more than most, so Fisher wants to rotate his defensive backs often. He barely has enough depth for one unit. He wants to have two solid groups.

“I’m going to need more than just a starting four or starting five,” Fisher said. “I’m going to need eight guys to rotate in a game. That’s how I had it at UCF. Those second-string guys are first-string guys. That’s why I try to make it so competitive in the room at all times.”

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