This summer, Nebraska defensive backs coach Brian Stewart huddled with his players and kicked around ideas for a nickname for the position group. They settled on “Lockdown U.”
To outsiders, that might have seemed a bit ambitious. After all, the Cornhuskers finished 121st in the FBS in passing yards allowed in 2015, and thus the secondary entered this season with some question marks.
That nickname, however, has proved prophetic. The back end of the defense has turned into one of the biggest strengths for No. 8 Nebraska and is a major reason why the team is 6-0.
“They’re playing awesome,” Stewart said.
The vastly improved defensive-back play was on display in last week’s 27-22 win at Indiana. The Huskers intercepted two passes, including cornerback Chris Jones' pick-six and nickel back Aaron Williams' game-sealing grab. For the season, Nebraska ranks third in the Big Ten and 13th in the FBS in pass efficiency defense, and it is tied with Ohio State for the league lead with 11 interceptions, which is fifth-best in the country.
“We’re giving up a ton less big plays,” head coach Mike Riley said. “Probably the biggest reason is just the growth of some of our young guys.”
That starts with Jones. The junior didn’t move into the starting lineup until midway through last year, as the new coaching staff felt like they had to play some returning veterans early. He has now emerged as one of the top corners in a Big Ten that’s absolutely loaded at the position, and he's being talked about as a future NFL draftee -- perhaps as soon as next spring.
Jones, who’s from Jacksonville, Fla., originally committed to Purdue and drew very little interest from Florida, Florida State or nearby SEC schools. He has grown into his 6-foot frame since coming to Lincoln and has excelled thanks to his attention to detail.
Stewart gives his defensive backs notebooks full of formations that leave space for players to jot down notes, thoughts and questions. He says Jones’ notebook is nearly full, cover to cover. Jones can break down film and understand defensive principles with ease. Stewart calls him the “sous-chef” of the secondary room and says Jones has even asked to have scout-team players switch positions to more closely monitor upcoming opposing receivers.
“That tells you how in-depth he’s looking at things,” Stewart said. “He takes such great pride in it.”
In addition to his interception for a touchdown against Indiana, Jones had two pass break-ups that ended drives for the Hoosiers.
“I just knew,” he said. “I knew the routes. You watch film so much, you know what the receivers are going to do.”
Stewart sees a similar level of preparation and dedication from the entire group, including junior cornerback Joshua Kalu, senior safety Nate Gerry and junior safety Kieron Williams. The turnaround for the secondary actually began in a most unlikely place: last year’s game at Purdue.
Nebraska fans will recall, to their utter horror, that Halloween afternoon in West Lafayette. The Boilermakers won 55-45 while throwing four touchdown passes. That result, which left the Cornhuskers at 3-6 on the season, led to several individual heart-to-heart talks between Stewart and his guys.
“In those talks, I saw the fire in Chris Jones,” Stewart said. “He wanted to be better. It was important to him. Joshua Kalu was embarrassed by what he was doing. Aaron Williams was young, but he said, ‘I understand what I’m supposed to do, and I can study more.’
“And once everyone, including myself, took accountability for that loss, that’s really when ‘Lockdown U.’ started.”
Nebraska’s pass defense got better from there out, culminating in the Foster Farms Bowl win over UCLA in which both Kalu and Jones picked off Bruins quarterback Josh Rosen. Not coincidentally, the team is 9-1 since that loss to Purdue.
Stewart made a deal with the defensive backs this summer: If they reached certain goals in interceptions, tackles, breakups and other statistics during training camp, he’d get “Lockdown U.” shirts made for everybody. Stewart doesn’t remember now what some of those benchmarks were, but he says his group far surpassed the goals, often tripling the requirements on a given day.
So they got the shirts, and hats, emblazoned with a logo of a player pointing, with a locked chain around his neck. The chain represents how everyone is linked together in the group. The lock, well, that’s pretty obvious. The defensive backs wore those shirts on the way home from the Indiana win last week.
“They've really taken to it,” Stewart said. “It’s a pride thing, and now we hold each other accountable for that. If something goes wrong, guys will say, ‘Hey, that’s not how we do it.'”
As the Huskers prepare to host Purdue this weekend, there’s no doubt they’re doing things a lot differently with their pass defense. Enough so that they’ve earned their own ambitiously chosen nickname.