He hasn’t yet touched the horseshoe on gameday or stood center stage when it’s third down and someone — maybe him — needs to make the play that sets off thunder and allows bones to be thrown. He’s been in town all of eight months, and some Husker fans will just learn of his name Saturday.
So why is it coaches and teammates can’t say enough good things about Byerson Cockrell?
What allows a newcomer, overlooked by most every major college football program after two years at East Mississippi Community College, to come in and immediately become one of the more important pieces to the Husker puzzle?
Start with this: He’s smart. That’s what everyone says. That’s what senior cornerback Josh Mitchell was saying this week when Cockrell’s name came up.
“He’s played three different positions already since he’s been here in a couple months and if you can do that, that’s very impressive,” Mitchell said. “And when you can impress your coaches and your teammates like that, I think that they gravitate to you a lot more ... and guys have gravitated toward him and his personality, so he fits in perfect.”
Since he’s been on campus since January, Cockrell has seen reps at nickel back, at cornerback, at safety. After an impressive spring, it became clear he’d fit somewhere in the Husker defense. But where?
Then Charles Jackson suffered a season-ending injury the first week of fall camp. Husker coach Bo Pelini made it immediately clear Cockrell was the leading replacement at Nebraska’s ultra-important nickel spot, a position that requires as much football smarts as it does athleticism, manned with much success in the past by players such as Eric Hagg and Ciante Evans.
Come Saturday’s opener against Florida Atlantic, the new guy wearing No. 28 will have a starring role.
“It’s really amazing, to say the least,” said junior cornerback Daniel Davie. “I haven’t seen anybody learn the defense as fast as he did. He almost gets treated like a veteran around here because he’s helping the young guys and he just learned it so fast. I think he’s really going to be a good player.”
Davie said he could tell in the spring that Cockrell, who's from Columbus, Mississippi, wasn’t fooling around.
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“We were in the meeting room, and just the way he answers questions with so much confidence, he’s a really mature guy.”
Certainly there’s a difference between a quiet meeting room in March and the split-second reactions required in front of a full stadium come fall. The first real test for the junior defensive back is about to come.
But coaches and players seem plenty optimistic the new guy will easily pass it. Even back in December, right after the 6-foot, 185-pounder signed with NU, coaches seemed convinced they had a recruiting steal in a player whose other main offers came from Southern Miss, UAB, Louisiana-Monroe and Middle Tennessee.
Pelini then called Cockrell "our style of corner who can get up in press (coverage) and get in people's faces and get his hands on."
Coaches now hope Cockrell can be their type of nickel back.
“He’s been locked-in since the day he walked on this campus,” said defensive coordinator John Papuchis. “He’s progressed as we hoped and in my opinion he’s ready to roll.”
Since he's not played for Nebraska yet, Cockrell is not available for interviews, per Pelini's policy.
Prior to his arrival on campus, Cockrell said he always wanted to play for a big program, and now that he had the chance, he wasn’t about to waste it.
“I learned everything isn’t given to you. Some things you just have to work for,” Cockrell said in early January. “How I grew up, I didn’t have too much. Everything I did get, I had to work for it.”
He clocked in for work later that week. Now, with spring and fall camp behind him, there's a game, a reward, a chance to let his play do the talking.