Former Husker great likes the perseverance and determination he saw from fellow corner Lamar Jackson this season
The 2018 Nebraska football team’s defensive struggles have been well-documented by this point. There were notable players and performances, but the run defense left much to be desired and ultimately cost the Cornhuskers a number of games.
It’s easy for many fans to dismiss the opinion of any given media member as to why things went the way they did, but perhaps a little less so when the assessment comes from a member of the Blackshirt brotherhood. Former Nebraska All-American (consensus honors in 1999) and NFL cornerback Ralph Brown II was consulted for his take on the struggles seen in Erik Chinander’s first year as the Huskers’ defensive coordinator. Interestingly enough, his takes line up with several fellow prominent former Nebraska players including the Huskers’ head man himself.
When asked about the trouble the Blackshirts’ front seven had with opposing running games, Brown sees a distinct lack of an important element for any defensive front. “I think some of the defensive linemen are a little light and they’re getting pushed around. You look at the defensive line against some of these [offensive] lines in the Big Ten. You look at the Iowa game (a 31-28 Nebraska loss), some of those surges, it almost seemed like the defensive linemen were on skates,” Brown said.
Nebraska’s defensive line came roaring out of the gates versus Colorado racking up seven sacks. Only four games out of their remaining 11 saw the Blackshirts chalk up multiple sacks and they couldn’t muster a single one versus Iowa. Brown again pointed to the lack of physicality on the Huskers’ part versus their conference counterparts.
“You have to prep your defense to go up against what the Big Ten has to offer. [Mike Riley’s team] wasn’t built for the Big Ten. It wasn’t built for that physicality or to grind it out for four quarters in the trenches on the defensive or offensive line.” Brown also noted the new staff was shocked to see the shape their new linemen were in after meeting them. He reemphasized Scott Frost’s determination to see Nebraska’s big men up front return to previously held Cornhusker football standards.
In terms of players that prominently stood out this past year, it was natural for two cornerbacks to enter the conversation. Lamar Jackson faced adversity but rose to the occasion regaining a lost starting job and playing with previously unseen physicality. Brown lauded Jackson’s response to the difficulties he was forced to accept and fight back against.
“When that happens, it humbles you. It makes you appreciate your position and it allows you to watch from the sidelines and dissect how you would make a play in practice. All you can do is watch and say what you would’ve done on that snap, pass or route. I think that’s what Lamar Jackson did, especially with coach (Travis) Fisher helping him and talking to him throughout the whole process. I’m really proud of what he achieved.”
In fact, Jackson’s name came up as a potential 2019 defensive captain. Linebacker Mohamed Barry’s was quick to follow. Brown was thrilled with Barry’s attitude and passion as while he wasn’t technically a captain, he certainly acted like it. “I hadn’t really truly seen where someone was the leader, like that pillar for the entire defense in a while. He showed that on plays he made, getting off the field, his energy, talking to his teammates on the sidelines, the way he conducted himself and the way he played the game. He exemplified what a captain should be.”
Another player that the former Nebraska defensive back had glowing remarks about was one that tied his single-season mark for pass breakups in Dicaprio Bootle. Brown sees a lot of himself in Bootle what with the junior-to-be’s scrappy mentality and high confidence. “He believes in himself, he’s going to fight until the end on every play and it showed this season with 15 pass breakups. Hats off to him.”
In terms of what Nebraska’s defense must do to give the team a solid shot at a massive rebound that would result in a Big Ten Championship Game appearance, Brown pointed to this year’s tilt versus Michigan State as what needs to be the Blackshirts’ rule rather than the exception. He was impressed with how the defense fed off each other’s excitement along with how every player was flying to the ball with aggression and purpose. While Michigan State didn’t offer the stiffest offensive challenge, the Blackshirts kept Nebraska in the game, ultimately giving them the opportunity to win. If that becomes a habit, Brown believes the Big Red will face the Big Ten East’s best come next season.
While Brown notes that there is plenty of room to improve, he’s bullish on Frost, Fisher and the staff as a whole to get Nebraska back to a point where it’s competing at a high level. That’s solid praise coming from a player whose name liberally dots his alma mater’s defensive record books.
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces).