Nebraska cornerbacks coach Brian Stewart put it like this:
Muhammad Ali, when he was 18, said he was the greatest boxer alive. Was he at the time? Probably not.
But when Ali was buried a few weeks ago, Stewart explained, that’s what everybody said: Ali was the greatest.
So why can’t the Huskers secondary, which at one point last year were statistically the worst pass defense in the country, dub themselves “Lockdown U.” That’s what junior cornerback Chris Jones proclaimed earlier this week.
Honestly, Stewart loves it.
“I think sometimes,” Stewart said. “You have to say it to claim it.”
The self-proclaimed title might make some heads shake, considering the Huskers finished 13th among 14 Big Ten schools in pass defense in 2015 after giving up 290.5 yards a game through the air.
But this year, Stewart says, it’s different.
“They took it personal,” Stewart said of last year’s performance. “It’s important to them. They know that the spotlight is going to be on them. They know that last year is gone, and this year is now and this year is their year.”
For most of the 2015 season, the secondary was a mess. They gave up 379 yards against BYU, including a 42-yard game-winning touchdown pass as time expired. They also gave up 379 yards to Miami, 447 yards against Southern Mississippi at home, and then four passing touchdowns in a loss to Purdue.
But the final four games of the season tell a different story: Nebraska cut its passing yards allowed about in half.
That performance by the secondary helped enable Nebraska to finish 3-1, with wins over Michigan State, Rutgers and UCLA, and an eight-point loss to No. 4 Iowa. In those games, Nebraska gave up an average of 233 passing yards, allowing only 97 yards against Iowa.
Had they kept the 233 yards-per-game average all season, Nebraska would have been ninth in the conference, just ahead of Michigan State and behind Iowa.
The greatest? No. But a step in the right direction. And now that momentum is building during preseason camp.
“This is a new team, new parts, and whatever happened last year really doesn’t matter because we know right now what matters is the product we put on the field now,” Stewart said.
There’s a clear push from the coaching staff to maximize the talent in the secondary. Nebraska coach Mike Riley mentioned it just minutes into his opening press conference on Wednesday. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker is even making a concerted effort to focus more on the safeties.
Nebraska returns a bulk of the secondary, including junior Joshua Kalu, senior safety Nate Gerry and Jones. Junior Kieron Williams and sophomore Aaron Williams will most likely compete for the safety spot opposite Gerry. Junior Boaz Joseph, sophomore Antonio Reed, senior Charles Jackson, and true freshmen Marquel Dismuke and Lamar Jackson will fight for backup time.
Stewart says he’s more comfortable with this group than he was a year ago, mostly because players are more familiar with schemes and won’t have to adapt to a new coach.
“A lot of times it’s just like dating: everybody’s on their best behavior,” Stewart said of being a new coach. “Everybody is showing a side of them that you’re like, ‘Okay!’ but the ups and downs of the season can get ugly, and I think football doesn’t create character, it reveals character. I really do think that, and now having the opportunity to be around guys and know who’s who and knows how to handle it? (That) has been tremendous.”
Regardless of who Nebraska trots out to the field, Kieron Williams says, it won’t matter. So far in fall camp, the secondary is gelling, motivated, and ready to prove everyone wrong.
“We know how each other works, we know how we communicate to one another and we just know the defense better,” Williams said. “By knowing what your responsibility is and knowing what another guy’s responsibility is, you can communicate that together. I mean, it’s just going to work better.”
Some might find ‘Lockdown U’ silly. But the secondary believes it’s attainable, even if it’s not true right now.
“We’re gonna lockdown everybody that steps in front of us,” Jones said on Thursday. “That’s what we’re gonna do.”
Chris Heady is a staff writer for Landof10 covering Nebraska football and recruiting. He takes movie and story suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @heady_chris.