LINCOLN — Nebraska freshman cornerback Lamar Jackson started in and played most of Nebraska’s 43-10 win over Fresno State to start the season.
Jackson hasn’t played much since then. That’s because NU was missing safety Nate Gerry in the season opener, so the usual nickel corner — Aaron Williams — had to play safety, while cornerback Joshua Kalu took Williams’ usual spot. When Gerry returned, Williams went to nickel and Kalu went back to corner. Jackson went back to the sideline.
But cornerbacks coach Brian Stewart likes what he’s seen out of Jackson in practice, especially since the 6-foot-3, 195-pound corner — NU’s top-rated prospect in the 2016 recruiting class — is just a freshman.
“He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know,” Stewart said.
Jackson has been asking good questions, Stewart said, as he learns more about Nebraska’s defense. Stewart said he’d feel comfortable putting backup corners Eric Lee and Boaz Joseph on the field, as well. Kalu and Chris Jones are the starters.
Could Jones be a potential prospect for the 2017 NFL draft? Jones, a true junior, will have played three seasons at NU by the time this year is over. Stewart demurred when asked; he’d rather have Jones for another season. When asked again, Stewart said he hadn’t coached in the NFL since 2009 but, in his opinion, Jones had all the requisite tools to succeed in the league.
Prospects like ranking
When he recruits, Stewart believes in talking up his team before he ever meets with prospects — regardless of how the program is doing at the moment. But he said it didn’t hurt that Nebraska was 5-0 and ranked in the polls. Linebackers coach Trent Bray agreed — as he talked to prospects on the phone Tuesday, they were telling him the Huskers were ranked in the top 10.
The prospects, Bray said, sometimes know more than the coaches do.
That’s all gravy for coach Mike Riley, who recruited in Los Angeles over the weekend and liked the momentum he saw as he talked to prospects.
“The fact that we’ve done well, they’re excited because I went to a place where we have guys obviously that we’ve been recruiting, and so the people around them, the coaching staffs and all that, are pretty excited about what’s in store for their players,” Riley said. “So that’s a very positive thing.”
Indiana QB tops in passing
Richard Lagow might be a relative newcomer to the Indiana system, but Nebraska defensive coordinator Mark Banker said the junior quarterback knows what he’s doing.
Lagow won the Hoosier starting job after transferring from Cisco (Texas) Community College last winter. He currently leads the Big Ten with 1,460 passing yards (292.0 per game), and is completing 60 percent of his throws with 11 touchdowns.
Banker said the 6-foot-6, 237-pound native of Plano, Texas, “manages the game well.”
“I think the quarterback does a great job at understanding what it is that’s being called, and how to get the ball run to the right, run to the left … or, when it’s a pass, where to go with the ball,” Banker said. “Because he understands the coverage and the play that it goes with.”
Mitchell Paige has 22 receptions and Nick Westbrook has 20 catches for the Hoosiers, and Ricky Jones is averaging 21.7 yards for his 18 receptions.
“They’ve got three quality receivers, they’ve got some backs to throw to, the quarterback delivers a nice ball, and they do a great job of protection,” Banker said.
NU must corral pair
Indiana leads the Big Ten in passing, but it also has one of the league’s leading rushers with Devine Redding. The 5-foot-10, 208-pound junior has 491 yards through five games, and is averaging 21 carries per game.
Nebraska also will have to account for 6-foot, 270-pound freshman Tyler Natee, who has the Hoosiers’ only rushing touchdown by a running back.
“They’re not like Oregon’s scatbacks — you know, they’re not going to completely break your ankles — but still they got some shimmy to them,” linebacker Josh Banderas said. “They’re big backs. One kid is 270 and the other one’s a well-built guy. You got to hit them, get your body on them, to get them down.”
IU tackle works on control
Indiana has a true freshman starting at left tackle, and coach Kevin Wilson said the Nebraska pass-rushers will be a good challenge for Coy Cronk.
“He’s still learning how to play,” Wilson said. “He’s a very athletic kid, very big, learning how to play with the strength you need to play with, the body control. We’re teaching him how to learn to slow down and use his athleticism, play with a little more body control.
“But we were very excited when he came here. He’s a very talented player. He’s off to a good start to what could be a good career.”
Cronk was a three-time all-state selection for Central Catholic High in Lafayette, Indiana. Central Catholic was 15-0 and the state champion his senior season, and also the state runner-up in basketball.
Points for special teams
In order to motivate players to perform their best and take pride in special teams, coach Mike Riley and special teams coordinator Bruce Read have implemented a points system.
This system awards special teams players points for making a positive play and also deducts points if they miss a tackle or an assignment.
“It’s really cool the way they promote special teams,” senior linebacker Brad Simpson said. “Guys like me that aren’t going to play a position, it’s kind of a way to show what you can do.”
Simpson said Read will calculate the point totals every Sunday. Simpson said he ranked first with more than 100 points, followed by junior linebacker Chris Weber and freshman safety JoJo Domann.
Along with getting a tackle, players can earn points by knocking down an opponent or downing the ball inside the 20-yard line.
Junior fullback Luke McNitt is also on kickoff coverage, kick return and punt return.
“It’s definitely something we take pride in,” McNitt said. “We can make just as big of plays on special teams.”
When McNitt transferred to Lincoln from the University of Nebraska at Kearney in 2014, he said he knew as a walk-on he would have to pay the extra time in the weight room and at practice to earn his role.
“That’s what I always tell the younger guys,” McNitt said. “Coming in as a walk-on, that’s where you kind of prove yourself.”
Adding the points system has caused some competition between players on special teams.
“I like to give (Simpson) a hard time because he’s beating me in special teams points,” McNitt said. “I need to get on punt (coverage) so I can start catching him.”
McNitt said he finally beat Simpson against Illinois because Nebraska did not punt.
When preparing for special teams, Simpson said it goes beyond film and it is important to know your opponent in and out.
“Some people overlook special teams,” Simpson said. “I look at it as an opportunity.”
Quarterback Tommy Armstrong, right guard Tanner Farmer and right tackle David Knevel practiced Tuesday. Wideout Jordan Westerkamp and tight end Cethan Carter did not. Running back Devine Ozigbo was not in full pads.