LINCOLN — There was a point not long after Chris Jones underwent knee surgery in July that Nebraska’s senior cornerback considered taking a redshirt year.
But his mom had different advice: Keep praying. Keep working hard. Don’t make any early decisions.
So Jones — an honorable-mention All-Big Ten selection last year after netting three interceptions, 37 tackles and 10 pass breakups — did just that. Early on, he tweeted his belief that he would beat the 4-6 month recovery timetable doctors gave him after repairing torn cartilage in his left knee.
“Every day it was just, ‘Go in there (to the training room), not really say much, just grind hard and just see what the outcome was going to be,’ ” Jones said following Tuesday’s practice inside the Hawks Center. “When the time came to test it out, everything was perfect. Everything was strong. I felt confident and came out here to practice. Felt great.”
Exactly 12 weeks and five games after undergoing the procedure, he was back on the field against Wisconsin. He made two tackles while playing a handful of snaps and is listed behind Eric Lee at one cornerback spot this week.
The experience helped Jones restore confidence in his abilities — “I felt like I really got my swagger back with that game,” he said — and now he expects to play and contribute even if he doesn’t start Saturday against Ohio State. Just being back on the field with his teammates is a thrill after watching from the sideline during fall camp and the first half of the season.
“I know they miss me out there on the field, and I miss being with them,” Jones said. “That was one of my main motivations when I was rehabbing, just getting back out here with my brothers.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said Jones’ rehab process went “by design” and that the Blackshirts are ready for him to pick up where he left off last year.
“We had a plan together as a football family and it was executed and it was just the right amount for him,” Diaco said. “To get his beak wet, so to speak. And now he’s going to be back in the role that most people anticipated and that’s appropriate for this week.”
Though Jones said the initial blow of his injury was devastating, he came to view it as part of God’s plan and that it happened for a reason. He cleared the last test a week ago, which required him to trust the knee by hopping on one leg, and immediately called his mother to relay the good news.
“I kept telling my mom every day, ‘I’m getting better. This is happening,’ ” he said. “Every day was something different, and I just kept passing and kept getting stronger, kept getting stronger.”
Diaco: Problems correctable
When Diaco finally went to bed on Saturday night, he was upset.
He thought his defense got pushed around by Wisconsin. Mauled. Beat up.
“But that did not happen,” Diaco said Tuesday. “That did not happen.”
After looking at the film, Diaco said, he actually felt all right about the way his defense played in the 38-17 loss to the Badgers.
With 1:20 to play in the first half, Wisconsin hadn’t scored a touchdown. And on that touchdown, a 75-yard scamper by Jonathan Taylor, it was Nebraska’s fault, not something Wisconsin did.
“Nobody got knocked down, pushed, battered,” Diaco said. “It was a bust systematically on that play.”
With five minutes left in the third quarter, Wisconsin hadn’t scored a second touchdown.
What ended up happening, Diaco said, was Wisconsin turned on the ground-and-pound game plan.
“When the game gets on ground and pound based on score, time and timeout, any offense — in particular one of the best rushing offenses historically in the country, you’re playing against Navy, Army, against some of these teams that know how to really run the ball like Wisconsin — they get to ground and pound, it gets very hard,” Diaco said. “You have to try and get the game to not ground and pound.”
Wisconsin ran 28 times in 30 plays, which led to 21 points. But on those long, grueling drives, the plays Nebraska gave up were also correctable in Diaco’s mind.
“So you grade it, you watch it, and you’re encouraged,” Diaco said. “I was disappointed. I don’t want to minimize that for Husker nation. But encouraged for the future.”
Facing a mobile QB
Most quarterbacks Nebraska has faced this year either have modest mobility or weren’t mobile at all.
Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett is a different story. He has 311 rushing yards this season, and, more than that, he uses his legs to buy time on pass plays. Pass plays that can turn into improv sessions with Ohio State receivers, who get open and in Barrett’s sight. It’s not unlike how many of Nebraska’s biggest passing plays under Tommy Armstrong were scramble drills outside the pocket.
Jones, who played against OSU last year, said a cornerback has to be mindful of Barrett’s scrambling skills and cover receivers accordingly.
“I wouldn’t say I have a clock in my head,” he said of how long he has to cover a receiver before he knows Barrett’s out of the pocket running around. “I just do my assignment. That’s my man. Stay on him. No matter where he goes, I’m there.”
Diaco said Barrett “runs their offense with great efficiency” and is an extension of the coaching staff.
“He protects the ball, protects the plays, does just a really nice job of working that offense,” Diaco said. “And then the guys he’s going to give the ball to are very talented.”
Freshman running back J.K. Dobbins, who leads Ohio State with 669 yards, has “elite start-stop speed,” Diaco said.
“He’s kind of a jump cut runner and he can accelerate and get to full speed very, very quickly,” Diaco said. “Some runners have building speed. Some runners make people miss by quick cuts. Some runners run people over — and I’m not saying he doesn’t possess those traits — but he’s got great start-stop speed and great contact balance.”
Meyer runs ‘the’ spread offense
Diaco made sure the wording in his defensive writeup of Ohio State was specific.
Ohio State isn’t just a spread offense. It’s the spread offense.
“And I did it purposefully, because Coach (Urban) Meyer’s offense from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida to Ohio State has made people famous,” he said. “It’s made players famous. It’s made coaches famous.”
Diaco called the system “awesome.” And Meyer’s wealth of talent just adds to it.
The Buckeyes tout the No. 1 scoring offense in the Big Ten. They’ve scored more than 50 points in their last three games, and won by an average of 42 points the last four weeks.
» Jones said fellow Floridian and cornerback Dicaprio Bootle has impressed him throughout the year, adding the redshirt freshman has potential to be a star defender. “If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to be something special,” Jones said.
» Linebacker Mo Barry agreed with Diaco that last week’s defensive mistakes are correctable. And now the team has moved past what happened against Wisconsin and zeroed in on Ohio State. “We beat ourselves at the end of the day,” Barry said. “We are a talented team and that shouldn’t happen, but we’re moving on to the next team.”
» Walk-on quarterback Andrew Bunch is replicating, or at least attempting to replicate, Barrett.
Diaco said it’s a nice idea having someone other than a quarterback help out with scout-team duties when preparing for someone like Barrett. But in this case, Bunch runs around just enough to make it work.
“Ohio State’s offense is hard for our look team to simulate anyway,” Diaco said. “(Bunch) doesn’t necessarily run like JT, but not many do. He does a real fine job for us.”