The discussion sounded a bit peculiar in the context of Nebraska's significant defensive struggles last season.
When Husker senior cornerback Lamar Jackson was asked Thursday if the secondary was in the midst of "reloading" in the wake of key personnel losses at the safety position, his first words were, "No steps back." That's probably a good idea considering Nebraska's defense ranked 94th nationally in average yards allowed in 2018 and 78th in average passing yards allowed as the Huskers slid to 4-8.
Going backward in 2019 would be a problem.
But there's another part of the discussion that lends legitimacy to it. Nebraska returns both of its starting corners in Jackson and junior Dicaprio Bootle, who both enter this season with confidence gleaned from their strong play in 2018. That said, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Jackson, who made a career-high seven pass breakups and recorded his first two career interceptions, sounds confident in the entire secondary.
"I feel like in the secondary room, we all kind of feed off each other," he said. "We have a lot of confidence, a lot of guys who want to play at the next level, a lot of guys who have their own personal motivators. And for the most part, I just feel everybody's grown up as people, as men."
Although Nebraska returns every corner from its 2018 roster, it loses three of the safeties from last season's four-man rotation in departed seniors Aaron Williams, Tre Neal and Antonio Reed.
"Everybody's just trying to recreate their destiny in a positive way and just make sure they do everything they can do on this football field to improve the team and to help themselves when it comes to the next level," Jackson said. "A lot of guys have NFL dreams, so I feel like that's one of our biggest motivators — to push each other and really make sure we give our best."
A native of Elk Grove, California, Jackson's NFL dreams are realistic. That's essentially what he heard from Nebraska head coach Scott Frost and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander the Sunday morning following NU's 42-28 home loss to Purdue on Sept. 29. Jackson was benched during that game for talking trash to the Boilermaker sideline and drawing a flag.
The message that Sunday from his coaches was along the lines of this: You have pro potential, so start acting like a pro. He responded well because he felt the coaches were on his side. Against then-No. 8 Ohio State in early November, Jackson made three tackles, recorded his second pick and forced a fumble that was recovered by the Huskers. He played some of the best football of his career down the stretch.
He evidently carried his momentum into spring drills. Secondary coach Travis Fisher said Jackson and safety Deontai Williams had the most interceptions during the spring. But Jackson isn't exactly resting on his laurels.
"It was a confidence-boost, yeah, but I feel like it's just natural," he said. "I mean, I'm trying to get picks. I want picks. But at the end of the day, that's practice."
He wants more from himself. Expects more from himself.
"My coaches believe in me, my coaches are confident in me," Jackson said. "My teammates believe in me. But at the end of the day, I'm not the best in the country. I'm not leading the country in picks. Really, my biggest motivator is taking that from practice and putting it on the field this fall."
A stat by Pro Football Focus was floating around recently that was flattering to both Jackson and Bootle. Among Big Ten corners, Bootle ranked first last season in forced incompletion rate at 27.1%, while Jackson was third at 20.7%. That helps explain how Nebraska ranked 34th nationally in pass-efficiency defense.
Jackson is aware of the stats. But he falls back on a familiar refrain: He wants more. More from himself, and more from his team.
Most of all, he wants Nebraska to come up with more interceptions. It had 11 last season, with Williams also snaring two.
"We did some stuff last season, but I'm not satisfied," Jackson said. "I really feel like I haven't done nothing or showed nothing that I'm really capable of. I feel like mentally, I'm the most complete that I've been in awhile. I'm the most confident I've been in a while in myself and my abilities.
"I feel like I've got it figured out. Now, at this point, I've got to take all this stuff out of my head and put it on the field and display that for everybody in the world, just to set myself up for a great future, as well as (Bootle)."
He also throws the safeties into the conversation.
"If everybody does what they say they're going to do and do what they need to do, the numbers are going to speak for themselves. We are the best, because we can be. We hope we do that."
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