As Scott Frost set about building his first coaching staff at Central Florida, he figured he probably would not retain any of the previous assistants.
He had plenty of capable people in mind and, newly into his first head coaching job, he wanted fresh blood in Orlando, where the Knights had just suffered through a winless season.
As it turns out, though, he wound up keeping both tight ends coach Sean Beckton and secondary coach Travis Fisher.
“A lot of it was because of what type of people they were, not just the type of coaches they were,” Frost said this week. “Both are exceptional individuals.”
But he found extensive similarity in particular with Fisher, who played professionally for coaches such as Rod Marinelli and Joe Barry in Detroit in the “Tampa 2” scheme, just like Frost did under Mike Tomlin and Raheem Morris in Tampa, and coached just the way Frost wanted.
“We started talking about all the language that we spoke as DBs in that system and kind of hit it off during that,” Frost recalled. “I had always said that if I became a head coach, I wanted someone from that Tampa tree because of how much I believe in how they coached defensive backs. ‘Fish’ is well-versed and schooled in all that.
“A combination of all those things made it an easy decision for me.”
Nearly three years later, it’s paying off for Nebraska’s secondary, too. Cornerbacks Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle are playing the best football of their careers — and both are underclassmen — and NU’s group of safeties is rotating four players with confidence.
They’re not exactly the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom, of course, but they’ve made clear strides in the past 11 months and also in recent weeks.
“If you watch the film from spring to fall camp, there’s a jump,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “If you watch the film from fall camp to Game 1, there’s a jump; if you watch from Game 1 until probably two games ago, (there’s a) huge, huge jump — into the technique, into what we want in ball awareness. Not just being in position anymore, but going to get the football, making a pass breakup, getting an interception.
“They’re understanding that being in position is not good enough. Anybody can be in position. You want to be great, you’ve got to go get the football.”
In the past three weeks, the secondary has logged a pair of interceptions and also forced four fumbles to go along with 11 breakups.
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Jackson had a pick and a forced fumble against Ohio State and, when recalling them Tuesday, essentially shrugged.
“Just keys and reaction. … I really just did my job on the play,” he said of the third-quarter interception." Of forcing a fumble with a sure tackle: “I’m in the right place at the right time.”
Fisher preaches a technique-first mentality. Defensive backs are generally thought of for flash and flourish and swagger, but that doesn’t get to show through without being detail-oriented. That aspect is starting to take root across a room that features players from all kinds of backgrounds. Jackson was a blue-chip recruit, Bootle an under-the-radar camp find. Freshman Cam Taylor is a converted quarterback. Senior safety Tre Neal’s playing for Fisher for a third straight season, while Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed are on their fifth position coach.
But they’re all starting to play together, the way their coach wants it.
“Yeah, that’s our coach, we’re a reflection of him,” Jackson said. “If we’re doing our job on the field, y’all think he’s doing his job as well or he is doing his job. We’re all in this together.”
Week over week, the points of emphasis change in the meeting room, but they always revolve around taking the ball away.
Steven M. Sipple, Parker Gabriel and Chris Basnett look at Nebraska's final three games and …
“All the technique is kind of in us with our positions, we kind of know what we need to do, and then he just sharpens it,” Jackson said. “Coach Fish, since he played the game, he’s real up top with it. He’s smart. He basically just tells us, ‘Just know what you’re getting.’ If you know what you’re going to get or at least know a couple routes, it’s going to make your job a lot easier.
“He’s big on the mental part and just knowing so you can go make a play.”