Dicaprio Bootle grinned ever so slightly this week when someone mentioned that Nebraska’s cornerbacks are regarded as a team strength this year.
He stood beside fellow starting cornerback Lamar Jackson fielding questions from reporters. On this particular subject, Bootle wanted the floor.
“It’s funny because a couple years ago we were a weakness,” he says. “We were a problem. It was always us.”
OK, that’s sort of true. But the 2017 defense had myriad deficiencies as it slid to 100th nationally in average yards allowed and 115th in points allowed (36.4). Singling out one unit would be a gross oversimplification.
This much is certain: Nebraska’s corners enter the 2019 season with high expectations of their own as well as from the outside world.
Bring it on, Jackson says.
“Coach says that’s good for us,” he says of Husker secondary coach Travis Fisher. “It just gives us a little more confidence, a little bit more swagger going into the game, just knowing that people expect us to do it. There ain’t no question about it, so let’s go do it.”
When Nebraska opens the season at 11 a.m. Saturday against South Alabama, the Huskers will take the field with a pair of tight-knit corners from opposite ends of the country. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Jackson, a senior from Elk Grove, California, has started 23 of the past 24 games. He overcame being benched early last season to play some of his best football late in the year.
Bootle, a 5-10, 195-pound junior from Miami, led the Big Ten last season with 15 pass breakups. He earned third-team All-Big Ten honors from both the media and coaches.
Nebraska hasn’t had a first-team all-conference cornerback since Ciante Evans in 2013, but Bootle is capable of ending the drought.
So is Jackson, come to think of it.
Make no mistake, the corners no longer are a team weakness.
“Every day we come here and lace up our cleats the same way as we did the day before,” says Bootle, whose 15 breakups were the most by a Husker since Fabian Washington posted the same total in 2004. “We just get to work. We work hard. We won’t let anything deter us. Some days were bad (in the past). Some days we were on top of the world. Nobody could stop us.
“Lately, we’ve been going out there and working even harder. Now we’ve got a coach like Coach Fish who’s taking the screwdriver and tightening up the screws. He’s getting us to play fast. Getting us to be sharp and be aware of everything. Sometimes we see plays before they even happen.”
Such a high level of anticipation speaks to the veteran corners’ knowledge of the game.
It also speaks to those defenders being in their second go-round in Erik Chinander’s 3-4 scheme.
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No wonder Bootle can grin as he mulls the past. After all, his immediate future looks bright.
“Coming from that point where we were kind of seen as a weakness to now being a strength, we know we worked hard for this,” he says. “We know we put in the work to be seen this way.”
Jackson and Bootle entered the program together in 2016. They’ve seen good leadership from veteran players, but not always.
“We’ve kind of also seen the problems and how people handled certain things,” Jackson says. “We didn’t really have older guys pulling us in. They were doing their job. But at the same time they weren’t really bringing the whole (defensive backs meeting) room along.
“Now that me and ‘Dicap’ are in position to lead, we’re just making sure that we change that. We know what the problem was. We just kind of set the standard and expect everybody to match it.”
They lead a talented group. Sophomore Cam Taylor will be on the field plenty in various packages. Redshirt freshman Braxton Clark and true freshman Quinton Newsome are regarded as rising stars. That said, Fisher likes to keep his starting corners on the field. So expect to see a lot of Bootle and Jackson.
One way Bootle could take his game to another level is by snaring a handful of interceptions. He’s looking for the first one of his college career.
For Jackson, it’s always been a matter of trying to take full advantage of his athletic prowess.
“This is pretty much it for me,” he says. “I’ve got my Blackshirt. That gave me my little mark for fall camp. That showed me that I proved to my coaches and teammates that I deserve this honor. Then going into the season, I just want to bump it up to another level with my guys.
“Like Coach says, we put the work in. Now it’s time to polish it up and tighten it up and really just go out there and put our best foot forward and dominate the game.”
He now can say "dominate the game" with a degree of credibility.
“It’s exciting because we get another go-round,” Bootle says. “Last year, it wasn’t completely how we wanted it to go. I know the end of the year was good. But the beginning of the year was atrocious, and that was at all levels of the game.
“Now we have a chance to make it right.”
He had one more thing to say.
“We always believed in ourselves even when some people didn’t.”