In August, it’s the dog days of summer. This rainy, snowy April in Nebraska, it’s the indoor practice days for the Husker football team.
Only once have the Huskers practiced outside. And that was on Thursday in Memorial Stadium. Saturday, in miserable weather — replete with strong north winds — NU was back indoors for the coaches clinic, which drew hundreds.
Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, talking after the workout, said the Husker defense rebounded Saturday after a poor Thursday.
“Right now I’m trying to get a little more consistency out of the whole unit,” Chinander said. “A little more fight and stuff. We went outside (Thursday), it got a little cold, I think both sides went down a little bit (because) they’re used to practicing inside. You want to see a little more fight when things get rough.”
So Chinander was in little mood to talk up any individual players. He said he’s still looking for a “bell cow” vocal leader — preferably one at each position group — and for his respective position groups to string together a series of good practices. The defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs all seem to alternate strong workouts with average ones.
“Some of you asked me the other day, ‘Who’s the guys who are really playing good?’ Nobody,” Chinander said. “Everybody’s got to improve. There’s some guys, they’re playing OK, but we’ve got to get better, everybody across the board. I’m not ready to say anybody’s taken a job yet, stuck out yet.”
The position coaches picked out a few names worth nothing, however.
Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said corners Dicaprio Bootle and Lamar Jackson are having strong springs. Bootle has been cross-trained at corner, nickel corner and even some at safety. Jackson — the former top-100 recruit who drew criticism last season for soft coverage and shoddy tackling — has “progressed from the first day,” Fisher said.
“As far as in the run game, that’s where he struggled at, I guess, last year. He’s been more competitive on the back end. I think he’s improved. He’s not there, but I think he’s improved a lot.”
Fisher said safeties Aaron Williams and Deontai Williams have taken snaps at corner, as well. Nebraska doesn’t have a ton of scholarship players in the secondary, and the unit has been “nicked up,” Chinander said.
Outside linebackers coach Jovan Dewitt called junior Alex Davis “Ace.” Davis has taken good notes, Dewitt said, and has a good skill set.
“He’s pretty, isn’t he?” Dewitt said.
The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Davis said an offseason training with new strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval has left him faster and quicker. He hasn’t tested it out with a 10- or 40-yard dash yet.
“I feel a lot more explosive and quicker,” Davis said. “I can feel it. You can feel it when you’re cutting and making moves. You can feel the difference in the way you run.”
Inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud liked the growth of Dedrick Young.
Brenden Jaimes more comfortable at left tackle
LINCOLN — Brenden Jaimes started more games in 2017 at right tackle than any true freshman in Nebraska history. But his move to left tackle, replacing Nick Gates, is where the Texan feels most comfortable.
“It’s where I played in high school, and last year when I played right (tackle) it was a little different,” Jaimes said. “But I tried to help the team out any way I could and now on the left side I feel a lot better.”
As a whole, Jaimes said he thinks the offensive line has come a long way this spring. The line is still getting used to the new tempo but is handling that well, he said.
The now-sophomore is up to 290 pounds after putting on 10 pounds during winter conditioning.
Jaimes said, more than anything else, he learned to be humble last season.
“Coming from a good high school program and playing as a freshman in the Big Ten, it’s a big step up and it really humbled me and it showed me I had to work just as hard as everybody else to be on the field,” Jaimes said.
Lightbourn on kickoffs
Caleb Lightbourn thinks he can be the best punter in the Big Ten, and one of the best in the nation. That has long been a goal for the Nebraska junior.
Now he’s adding another one: Win the starting kickoff job.
“It’s one of my favorite things to do because you don’t have to think about it too much,” Lightbourn said. “You just go and just kick the ball as hard as you can. I mean, that’s a lot of fun.”
The actual work that goes into the kickoff position isn’t all that extensive once he gets the basic footwork down, he said. Maybe the only real challenge to the added responsibility is making sure he keeps his leg fresh enough to work on the finer mechanics and technique of punting.
Also vying for the kickoff spot are a pair of place-kickers in redshirt freshman walk-on Cole Frahm and true freshman early enrollee Barret Pickering.
Graduated kicker Drew Brown handled kickoff duties last year, when Nebraska’s touchback percentage of 45.9 ranked 50th nationally.
Special teams coach Jovan Dewitt said touchbacks will be the key in the competition.
“He’s a really valuable tool for us,” Dewitt said of Lightbourn. “As a defensive coach, one of your biggest assets can be having a great punter. And the fact now that he’s able to kick it off as deep and as well as he does — huge. Huge for us.”
Dewitt’s voice went up an octave with that first “huge.” He said he tried Lightbourn on kickoffs early on and it was successful — “Touchback. Yay.”
Dewitt also said NU is not close to determining a kickoff returner, in part because of the inability to practice outdoors and also because the ball is rarely landing in play.
“I feel good about it,” said Lightbourn, who measures 6-foot-3, 235 pounds. “I obviously have room to get better. Yeah, kicking it out of the back (of the end zone) is better, but hitting the wall is better than that.”
Lightbourn — who ranked 53rd nationally in 2017 by averaging 42.14 yards per punt — also said Dewitt has been a good listener while still offering advice and video breakdowns of his punting. The Washougal, Washington, native worked with then-defensive coordinator Bob Diaco last season and is experiencing a much different style of practice this spring.
“It’s definitely good for us,” Lightbourn said. “Last year was, like, super intense, doing stuff all the time. But now we just get to focus on what we have to do and get better at our craft.”
D-line strikes first
Carlos Davis doesn’t like waiting around. He likes hitting the offensive lineman first, which is why he’s so happy with this new defensive scheme.
“Biggest thing is stop reacting to the offensive lineman and striking first. That was a big thing we did last year and it’s a bad habit we’re trying to get rid of now,” Davis said. “I don’t want to go on their tempo. We hit them first, I can strike and go make a play.”
Last year Nebraska’s pass rush was anemic. The Huskers finished last in the Big Ten with 1.2 sacks per game.
“I’m very quick-twitch, so reacting to them was slowing me down,” Davis said. “So we’re sticking them first. I can go on my pace rather than their pace.”
Nebraska defensive line coach Mike Dawson said he wasn’t sure exactly the scheme of Diaco’s 3-4 defense, but moving forward, he wants his guys to get after the offensive lineman to go make a play.
SEAL fills in snapping
Probably the position battle you’ll hear least about in football: long snapper.
Senior Jordan Ober is currently out with a knee injury — he hasn’t practiced all spring — so the long snapper position is currently being filled by committee, one of which is former Navy SEAL Damian Jackson.
Dewitt said Jackson is doing a good job filling in thus far. Dewitt expects Ober to be fine by the fall.
Farmer adjusting well at center
Tanner Farmer likes playing offensive line at Nebraska, so wherever position coach Greg Austin wants to put him, Farmer will happily accept.
Right now, that’s at center, where Farmer hasn’t played in a long time.
“I just have to learn it more and more,” Farmer said. “… (The coaches) do a very good job of teaching these plays, so I’m understanding the line calls. Everybody on the line knows the line calls. They make a point that everybody has to be able to play any position. We have to be able to call any position in any blocking scheme. Anybody can do that. Anybody can play center and make those calls, because we all have to know.”
In NU’s previous offense, Farmer said, the line calls were more “specialized.”
New rule will lead to new strategies
The NCAA Playing Rules Committee on Friday passed a rule that allows kickoff returners to signal for a fair catch inside their own 25-yard line for a touchback that takes the ball out to the 25. The NCAA committee passed the rule out of concern for player safety.
Dewitt estimated it’ll create new strategies for kickoffs from both kickoff specialists and returners.
“It takes a little bit of the old strategy out of the game, where you’re trying to get the ball to land on the 1- or 2-yard line,” Dewitt said.
Nebraska hasn’t decided yet what strategy it wants to use on kickoffs but will consider a “long, hard squib” to force opponents into a return mentality.
On returns, Dewitt said personnel will dictate whether teams return kickoffs or just settle for the touchback.
“If you’ve got a really dynamic returner, you might tell him to never fair catch it,” Dewitt said. “You might risk getting tackled on the 20, but also getting it out to a big, massive return.”
Kicker skill sets and weather will play a factor, too.
>> Redshirt freshman quarterback Tristan Gebbia remained on the field throwing to receivers for 35 minutes after practice. He was tossing the ball to true freshman Justin McGriff and discussing things with a few offensive assistants. This is a common scene after practice. TV reporters have to wait to enter the field to shoot stand-ups until after Gebbia leaves, which is sometimes up to 40 minutes after practice has ended.
>> Sophomore corner Dicaprio Bootle said Scott Frost — a former NFL defensive back — has participated in a drill or two at his position during the spring and has been actively working with both sides of the ball.
“He’s definitely a coach that cares about everything,” Bootle said. “There’s nothing really that he doesn’t oversee.”
Bootle and Lamar Jackson have consistently been the No. 1 corners in practice.
>> Sophomore running back Jaylin Bradley said he’s “pretty comfortable” in the offense, and that familiarity set in around the third spring workout. If he needs some extra work, he’ll watch film with intern coach Colby Ellis.
“I feel like everybody felt pretty confident,” Bradley said. “We (running backs) went over stuff way more than everybody else. Coach (Ryan) Held really got us sharpened up.”
Bradley spent four years in a system similar to Frost’s at Bellevue West. One difference between NU’s offense and the Thunderbirds’ attack — at Nebraska, Bradley, like the other running backs, lines up in the slot. This is the Duck-R position, a name Frost brought from Oregon.
>> Dewitt said his goal is to teach so much defense to his group in the spring that it can shift into studying opposing offenses in the fall. One step these last few weeks has been getting current Huskers to use the coaches’ terminology and language. In the last few days, the coach has seen them doing so, which has led to quicker recognition and reaction to what the offense is doing.
“One of the rules we have in my meeting room is, ‘Make me say woah, not giddyup,'” Dewitt said. “We want those guys getting after it, making a decision and going with it. We can solve a lot of issues with aggression, so let’s go attack what we need to attack, attack with the appropriate leverage and figure it out from there.”
>> Place-kickers Pickering and Frahm continue their spring competition, and Dewitt called it “a constant battle every day for those guys. We evaluate them every day.” He said right now it’s difficult to tell who is on scholarship and who is a walk-on. Dewitt said they haven’t gotten as many reps in practice as he’d like because of the heavy installation this spring. But of what he’s seen, he’s he’s liked these first few weeks.
With his role as outside linebackers coach, Dewitt said much of his time with the specialists comes in the 10 minutes or so before and after practice. He simulates pressure situations for them, like where a missed field goal would mean 10 up-downs for the specialist group.
>> Sophomore tight end Jack Stoll has been singled out by Frost and tight ends coach Sean Beckton this spring for his approach to the daily grind. Stoll said he’s followed the example of players who came before him like Tyler Hoppes, Connor Ketter, Sam Cotton, Cethan Carter and Trey Foster.
>> Barrett Ruud had blunt comments for one of his inside linebackers, Avery Roberts, who was a four-star in the 2017 recruiting class.
“He’s got to get in shape and he’s got to get his movements a lot better,” Ruud said. “He’s a smart kid and he’s worked hard at it, but his movements aren’t where they need to be and his conditioning’s not where it needs to be. Summer is gonna be huge for him. I think he needs to lose a little bit of weight and I think he really, really needs to buy in to what (strength coach Zach) Duval is gonna have him do in the summer.”
Ruud said Roberts would be a “different player” if he’s in shape.