When Travis Fisher was a college defensive back at Central Florida, he and position-mate Asante Samuel had what amounted to a standard operating procedure.
Compete no matter what.
“When me and him went to school together, we were roommates and we competed on everything,” Fisher said. “Every single thing outside of football. … Who can get the most sleep? The craziest things.”
Fisher ended up playing nine years in the NFL, while Samuel played 11, racking up 51 career interceptions, first-team All-Pro honors in 2007, four Pro Bowl appearances and two Super Bowl titles.
That kind of mentality isn’t built overnight. At the outset of his second spring as the secondary coach at Nebraska, though, there are signs that Fisher’s mantra is taking root in his players here.
Head coach Scott Frost has repeatedly pointed to the defensive backs group as the position that made the biggest change year-over-year in winter conditioning. Fisher’s veterans, including senior cornerback Lamar Jackson and junior corner Dicaprio Bootle, sound a little bit more like their coach every time they meet with reporters.
“He just kind of made everybody compete and made everyone come in here, and there ain’t no day when you wake up and say ‘I don’t feel like practicing,’” Jackson said. “If you don’t feel like practicing, then you’ll get exposed.”
Not just by Fisher. Frost has talked extensively about how he wants the players to hold each other accountable. That may have grown more in the secondary room than any other place on the roster.
“Every day we challenge each other,” Bootle said. “Some guys will call other guys out when they see that they’re not working hard enough. We take that to heart, but we don’t get on each other about it. We just let each other know that. We’ve got to come to work every day because it’s somebody out there working harder than us. At least that’s how we see it.
“So anytime we feel like we’re not working to our standard, we try to kick it up another notch.”
As spring ball gets rolling, on the surface it appears there’s more uncertainty at safety than corner. NU saw three seniors leave at safety, with junior Deontai Williams the only returning regular. At corner, Jackson, Bootle and Cam Taylor return as the top three with redshirt freshman Braxton Clark not far behind and a talented set of freshmen set to arrive this summer.
To assume it’s that simple, though, would be a mistake. Fisher insists nobody’s got a job locked up at this point.
“Some guys are not going to like me because of it, but it’s going to be very competitive in the room,” Fisher said. “That’s what makes a secondary room a great secondary room. That’s what made it OK last year.”
To be great, of course, there’s also the talent component. Fisher coached Shaquill Griffin his first year with Frost at UCF and Mike Hughes in 2017. Griffin was a third-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks and earned a starting job right away, while Hughes was a first-round pick by the Minnesota Vikings.
The challenge in Lincoln is to find the next player or players of that caliber.
“Getting Lamar to buy in, that’s what he was brought here for: He was brought here to be an elite corner. To lock down receivers,” Fisher said. “That’s why he wanted to come here. I don’t necessarily know if Lamar was put in the right situations — I told you guys this when I got here — or held accountable (before). He’s kind of bought into that a little bit and kind of turned it a little bit. He’s got a long ways to go, if I’m talking about being elite.”
Fisher rattles off several more names like Bootle, Taylor and Williams. He thinks each of his four freshmen can come in and challenge for playing time. Redshirt freshman Cam’ron Jones is off to a good start so far this winter in the weight room and this spring.
“There’s a lot of them that have that same potential to be that elite guy in the room and it’s a race to it,” Fisher said.
Spring is the time for experimentation along with competition. Taylor’s playing multiple spots. Others will, too. Come late May, Noa Pola-Gates, Myles Farmer, Quinton Newsome and Javin Wright join the fray. Fisher said he wants to play five or six safeties and get a lot of guys on the field this fall. But he also won’t be afraid to give a job to whomever comes and takes one, regardless of the past.
“I’d rather be that guy and get that ‘W’ than be the other guy and get an ‘L,’” Fisher said. “Sometimes I might put myself in position for guys to be like, ‘Oh man,’ but once that success comes, then you see yourself having a little bit of success and then you buy in.
“That’s the way it works these days. Some guys are born with it and some guys you have to get it out of, but I think everybody has a little piece to the puzzle in that room that they can add.”