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.
“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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No. 20 Baker Steinkuhler, DT, 2011-2012: Perhaps the best way to show his impact was how his absence, due to injury, shaped the 2012 Big Ten Championship game. Without him, Nebraska seemed powerless to stop Wisconsin’s running game. Steinkuhler had 87 tackles and 12 for loss over the last two seasons of his career. He didn’t miss a start for three seasons — until the Big Ten Championship.
No. 19 Eric Martin, LB/DE, 2011-2012: A great special teams player in his first two years at Nebraska, Martin found his footing in his final two seasons at NU, especially in 2012, when he had 18 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. He was first-team All-Big Ten as a result.
No. 18 Jeremiah Sirles, OT, 2011-2013: There aren’t many offensive linemen on the list, but Sirles — a versatile, steady performer who didn’t miss a start in his final two seasons — deserves mention. He played left and right tackle as injuries to teammates dictated and won second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2012.
No. 17 Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, 2011-2013: He seemed headed for a footnote career — an interception in the big comeback win over Ohio State in 2011 — until a spectacular senior year, in which he had four interceptions, 12 pass breakups and made second-team All-Big Ten. He had interceptions in four straight games, too.
No. 16 Quincy Enunwa, WR, 2011-2013: He might have cracked the top five had NU not wasted his freshman year on a handful of plays. Enunwa was raw out of high school, but by his senior year, he wasn’t just a good blocker and a hard guy to tackle — he was a top-shelf receiver. In 2013, he had 51 catches for 753 yards and a school-record 12 touchdowns, the last of which was a 99-yarder to beat Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl.
No. 15 Alfonzo Dennard, CB, 2011: Even if his best season was 2010, Dennard won Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year in 2011. Dennard most notably shut down Michigan State’s B.J. Cunningham, who was held without a catch in the 2011 game in Lincoln. Teams often threw away from Dennard during his senior year.
No. 14 Ciante Evans, CB, 2011-2013: He started 33 games and really hit his stride in 2013, when he had 11 tackles for loss and four interceptions on his way to first-team All-Big Ten honors. Evans was versatile enough to play nickel for NU and sometimes gets lost in the shuffle in recent Husker history.
No. 13 Stanley Morgan, WR, 2015-present: Poised to rise deep into the top 10 by the end of his senior year, Morgan will likely end his career as one of the best receivers in Nebraska football history. He broke the team’s single-season record for receiving yards last year with 986 yards. The career records for catches, yards and even touchdowns are also in sight. He has 1,743 yards and 15 touchdowns in his career thus far.
No. 12 Tommy Armstrong, QB, 2013-2016: He played in 45 games, started 44 and had his share of great moments — 2014 Iowa, 2015 Michigan State and 2016 Oregon. He also won two bowl games. He had 8,871 career passing yards, 1,819 rushing yards and 90 total touchdowns. He was tough as nails, too, but rarely played his best when Nebraska had the most to gain.
No. 11 Randy Gregory, DE, 2013-2014: Easily the most gifted Nebraska athlete of the Big Ten era, Gregory ran and leapt like a puma. Is it unfair to have him outside the top 10? Many would say yes. For me, he’s No. 11. When Gregory was good — for the last half of 2013 — he was great, but his up-and-down play in 2014 drops him a little bit on the list. Gregory left after his junior year to play in the NFL.
No. 10 Nate Gerry, S, 2013-2016: The man made a lot of plays at Nebraska, especially those 13 interceptions and 19 pass breakups. Gerry could be inconsistent, but he tended to raise his game deeper into Big Ten play. His signature game might have been 2016 Wisconsin, when he had two interceptions, or 2014 Iowa, when he had an end-zone pick and 15 tackles.
No. 9 Jordan Westerkamp, WR, 2013-2016: No recent Husker receiver had more highlight catches and plays than “Westy,” who was a sturdy option on third down and on the receiving end of Hail Mary play in the 2013 Northwestern game. Clutch when it counted — on fourth down against Oregon in 2016, on the final drive against Michigan State in 2015 — Westerkamp finished with 2,474 yards receiving.
No. 8 Maliek Collins, DT, 2013-2015: Focused from the day he got on campus, Collins missed only one game over three seasons before declaring early for the NFL Draft. His signature season came in 2014 as a sophomore, when he finished with 14 tackles for loss and 13 quarterback hurries. Collins was one of the best high school recruits of the Bo Pelini era.
No. 7 Spencer Long, OG, 2011-2013: The best offensive lineman in the Big Ten era was, of course, a walk-on. Long was a nimble-but-powerful road grader at guard, capable of getting out in front of a ballcarrier or warding off a blitz. After making first-team All-Big Ten in 2012, his senior year in 2013 was cut short by an injury at Purdue.
No. 6 Will Compton, LB, 2011-2012: A lunch-pail guy who emerged as one of Nebraska’s best pure leaders in the Big Ten era. Compton had 192 tackles, 13 for loss and an interception returned for a touchdown over his last two seasons. He was a big part of NU's first two Big Ten teams, arguably its two best, including the divisional championship team in 2012.
No. 5 Kenny Bell, WR, 2011-2014: He holds Nebraska’s career records for receptions and receiving yards, and he had his share of highlight plays — that one-handed catch against Illinois defied logic. Bell’s speed made him a deep threat that opened up the rest of the field, and he had a memorable kickoff return touchdown to help beat Penn State in 2013. He peaked as a sophomore — 50 catches for 863 yards and eight touchdowns — but he may have been at his best in the 2013 Michigan State game when he caught seven passes for 81 yards against elite corners. He was a fan favorite for his smile, his friendliness and, yes, the hair.
No. 4 Rex Burkhead, RB, 2011-2012: As beloved as any running back in Husker history. Burkhead was a smiling, often quiet battler who had sweet moves and a lot of toughness to plow through injuries. His junior year in 2011 — when he ran for 1,357 yards and 15 touchdowns — was notable, and Burkhead played in eight games as a senior, overcoming a knee injury suffered in the season opener.
No. 3 Taylor Martinez, QB, 2011-2013: Too high? Think again. Nebraska wins the Big Ten Legends crown in 2012 because of Martinez’s ability to pull big plays from seemingly thin air, and coaches voted him first-team All-Big Ten too. His junior season — 2,871 yards passing, 1,019 yards rushing, 33 total touchdowns — was marked by double-digit comeback wins over Wisconsin, Northwestern, Penn State and Michigan State. Martinez’s senior season was marred by a dislocated toe, but he didn’t miss a game in 2011 or 2012.
No. 2 Lavonte David, LB, 2011: He played just one year in the Big Ten, but what a season! David was Big Ten Linebacker of the Year and an All-American with 133 tackles, 13 for loss, 5.5 sacks and two interceptions. His superb play helped the Huskers win two of their biggest games in 2011 — Penn State and Ohio State — and his pass-coverage skills were crucial in wins over Iowa and Washington. David is one of the best linebackers in school history.
No. 1 Ameer Abdullah, RB, 2011-2014: A no-brainer, Abdullah is one of the best running backs in school history, finishing with 4,744 yards rushing and becoming the first Husker to have three 1,000-yard seasons. A bizarre goal-line injury against Purdue in 2014 slowed his Heisman and Doak Walker campaigns, and also kept him from setting the school’s all-time rushing record. Still, that season — with his masterpiece of 229 yards on 35 carries against Miami — won’t be soon forgotten. Nebraska missed Abdullah more in 2015 and 2016 than fans may appreciate.