LINCOLN, Neb. -- You’d never guess it now, but a time existed in his college career when Stanley Jean-Baptiste couldn’t get on the field.
In 2011, his second year at Nebraska and fourth since his final season at Miami Central High School after one year in prep school and another at junior college, Jean-Baptiste sat buried on the depth chart behind talented receivers, both newcomers and veterans.
He’d yet to contribute to a meaningful situation at the school, and already, as a sophomore, his chance appeared to be fading.
Jean-Baptiste was almost a bust.
Funny, now, looking back, perhaps no Husker has made more of a single opportunity -- by definition, the opposite of a bust.
His four interceptions lead the team. But it’s more than that: the 6-foot-3, 220-pound defender brings a knack for making the big play at the right moment, a trait he displayed in the infancy of his defensive development but only this fall harnessed consistently.
“He’s always had the talent to play whatever position he wanted on the field,” said senior receiver Kenny Bell, among the players who blocked Jean-Baptiste’s path early in their careers. “But just the way he’s learned our defense is most impressive to me.”
Jean-Baptiste has learned, all right. After a midseason switch from receiver to cornerback two years ago, he’s grown up in the Nebraska system. Jean-Baptiste progressed from a struggling member of the secondary to one of its most indispensable pieces.
His beginnings at Nebraska only sweeten the feelings of success this year.
A 2010 transfer from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College, Jean-Baptiste made a big splash in the first game after his move from offense to defense, intercepting a Joe Bauserman pass to help complete Nebraska’s three-touchdown comeback win over Ohio State in 2011.
From there, Jean-Baptiste floundered.
When Terry Joseph arrived in Lincoln to coach the secondary after that 2011 season, he said, he saw Jean-Baptiste and figured he knew how to play corner.
The coach was wrong.
“He didn’t have any foundation of playing the position,” Joseph said. “So he was out there, but he was kind of just surviving. I didn’t know, but he probably should have been treated like he was a freshman in going back to the very basics of it.”
The struggles continued last year as Jean-Baptiste started six games in Big Ten play. He filled a serviceable role, but Joseph and coach Bo Pelini expected more. So they called a sit-down with Jean-Baptiste last spring.
“It wasn’t a very delightful conversation,” Joseph said. “But to his credit, he left that meeting and started working on the things we pointed out to him.”
Primarily, Jean-Baptiste didn’t understand his role in the big picture of the Nebraska defense. He knew how to cover a receiver and how to read a quarterback. He intercepted Russell Bellomy in the Huskers’ win over Michigan last year and accumulated five pass breakups in a 29-28 Nebraska victory at Northwestern.
But little had changed since that notable defensive debut against the Buckeyes. Jean-Baptiste had a flair for the dramatic, but he didn’t perform as well at the routine responsibilities.
Oh, and he played too slowly, according to Joseph.
“He’s probably a 4.5 (40-yard dash) guy,” Joseph said, “but he was playing at 4.7, 4.8. When he got the mental of it, started getting reads and paying attention to the little things, it allowed him to play fast -- to make more plays.”
Jean-Baptiste noticed the change.
“I think it’s a start,” he said. “There’s always more work to put in.”
His work this fall has placed Jean-Baptiste among the Big Ten’s best in the secondary. He intercepted passes in each of the Huskers’ four nonconference games. All four picks led to touchdowns, including his own 43-yard return to open the scoring against Southern Miss.
In Nebraska’s Big Ten opener against Illinois, Jean-Baptiste’s crushing hit on receiver Steve Hull thwarted a fourth-down throw into the red zone to preserve a 14-0 Husker lead. It ranks as his favorite play of the season, Jean Baptiste said, because the breakup shows more discipline than simply jumping a route to intercept a pass.
“What I like about Stanley more than anything is his improved intensity level,” Nebraska running backs coach Ron Brown said. “He’s always had the ability. He’s always had the potential. He’s always been pretty. But to see that added dimension of heart, you put all that together, he’s a special guy.”
When Nebraska plays Saturday at Minnesota (noon ET, ESPN), it will mark Jean-Baptiste’s first action since he was ejected for targeting on a hit of running back Dalyn Dawkins in the first half at Purdue on Oct. 12.
He sat out the third and fourth quarters, listening from the locker room as the crowd told him the story of the Huskers’ 44-7 win.
Pelini and a few Huskers stood up in defense of Jean-Baptiste. Bell referred to the decision to eject his teammate as “embarrassing.” Such calls are “trashing the game,” Bell said.
Jean-Baptiste is moving forward.
“I just had to let it go,” he said. “If it was a bad call or not, I just had to move forward and not let it bother me … I think I did everything right. I came with the right form, and I just tried to make a play on the ball.”
Jean-Baptiste said he won’t change his approach. Nebraska teammates and coaches don’t want him to change.
From two years ago, he’s changed plenty. It’s likely to land him a long future in football.
“He’s a special player because of his size and skills,” Joseph said, “and now he’s put the mental part of it with that. His best ball is still ahead of him.”