As he watches over coverage drills, Nebraska defensive backs coach Evan Cooper can’t stand still.
Pacing back and forth across the practice field, Cooper radiates the energy and focus that he expects from his defensive backs. Pausing the action to correct form and remind his players to “do it again,” Cooper’s intensity is only visible to those immediately around him — because he’s far from the only assistant coach pushing their players.
From the youthful energy of Cooper and Garret McGuire to the booming voices of Ed Foley and Donovan Raiola, position-specific drills during Nebraska’s practices all have their own flavor. Regardless of position or technique, though, NU’s fall camp has all been about one thing: competition.
“I like to fuel the competitive fire; I want them to be competitive and fight nail and tooth and claw and scratch for everything they get,” Cooper said Monday. “I want them to compete at everything because that’s what life is — just showing up and competing.”
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The practice competition is not only vital for personal improvements, but it’s also necessary to eventually separate starters from backups. The secondary is a unique spot in that regard because of the five starting spots up for grabs in Nebraska’s 3-3-5 defense.
Some of those roles — like Isaac Gifford at rover or Malcolm Hartzog and Quinton Newsome at cornerback — already appear locked in place. Still, the overall competitive attitude that Cooper and other NU coaches preach has helped Hartzog keep striving for improvements.
“I feel like they’re bringing a lot out of us, pushing us every day,” Hartzog said Tuesday. “The drive they give us as soon as we get out there warming up, their mentality brings a lot out of us.”
At safety, though, Myles Farmer’s departure and Marques Buford’s return from an ACL injury means that every practice rep could put a player on the road to a starting role. Omar Brown, Corey Collier and Phalen Sanford are three players in contention for playing time at safety — and they’ve been practicing with that goal in mind.
Given the level of intensity pushed by Cooper and the stakes of each and every practice, the risk of competition is that it could breed envy or resentment. According to Sanford, that couldn’t be further from his experience about fall camp’s competition thus far.
“It’s super competitive but it’s more (because) we just want to be one of the best secondaries in the country whoever’s on the field,” Sanford said Tuesday. “There’s no animosity between the guys — we’ll hold each other accountable if one of us messes up and if one of us is having a bad day we’re going to pick that guy back up. We all know that this is competitive and that the right guy’s going to get the job.”
For players battling for their spots, there’s a balancing act at play during fall practice. Even after putting in all the hours, sweat and hard work needed to be a starter, there will be Huskers who don't achieve their goals. As such, the fall is just as much about harnessing that competitive drive into supporting others as it is about self-improvement and personal growth.
Junior Timmy Bleekrode knows this process well. Especially at a position like kicker, where backups are only needed in case of injury or sustained poor performances, winning a camp competition can be the ticket to a season-long role.
Bleekrode took part in several kicking competitions at his former school, Furman, and he’s currently entrenched in another with freshman Tristan Alvano. Special teams units are supposed to be close-knit — they work exclusively with each other throughout practices — so how does Bleekrode balance his goals with the need to be a good teammate?
“It can be tough sometimes. You think if you’re competing that the guys want each other to miss but I don’t really view it that way; I try to compete with myself,” Bleekrode said Monday. “I don’t want (Alvano) to do bad, I want him to do as good as he does but I’m competing with myself. If I’m too concerned on what he’s doing, that’s going to get in my head mentally and I don’t want that.”
Competition is also fierce in the trenches. It’s a natural part of being an offensive lineman, and the physical nature of their practices brings the risk of an intense rep leading to tension or rising temperatures. But even though Nebraska’s offensive linemen run through a series of drills requiring them to go full speed at a fellow lineman, Raiola makes sure that the competition doesn’t go too far.
“You’re not going after people; that’s just how you block,” Raiola said Tuesday. “Either you do it or you don’t, there’s only one standard and if you don’t do it in practice, when it’s a critical situation in a game you won’t get it. We’re smart with our teammates and we make sure we take care of our teammates.”