Coaches want players with instincts, make decisions in a blink of an eye
LINCOLN — Right around the time cornerback Will Jackson left Nebraska’s football program Monday, defensive backs coach Travis Fisher fielded a question about Jackson’s progress on the field.
“Will Jackson has been a bit of a slow blinker,” Fisher said.
Fisher mentioned Jackson’s struggles with the defensive playbook, but he wasn’t lobbing an insult at the junior college transfer. Fisher was using a phrase common of coach Scott Frost’s assistants. It’s Frost’s phrase. It’s Frost’s concept.
The faster you blink, the faster you think, the faster you process, react and make a play and the more that all overwhelms the opponent, especially on defense.
“You’re in a situation, you have the information available to you, it’s in the back of your noodle, you pull it up, bang, let’s go,” quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco said. “The ability to access your short-term and long-term memory — boom, right at that moment.”
Frost prioritizes that trait above all others in a quarterback. Many coaches may refer to it as “instincts” — like the way former Husker linebacker Lavonte David used to knife his way into a tackle that wasn’t even in his gap. David diagnosed the run play and could read where it was going as it went there.
Frost’s staff tries to take the idea to a deeper level. They recruit for the trait. They quiz high school coaches about players being good on the chalkboard or having an awareness of the playbook. Especially in Frost’s offense, where fast processing is critical to getting a defense off balance.
“That extra three seconds can be the difference in whether the defense can reload and line up when we’re trying to go tempo,” running backs coach Ryan Held said.
Frost has never set a firm timeframe for how quickly he wants a ball snapped into the 40-second playclock. He’s said he goes by feel — though feel seems to be around 27 to 32 seconds when Frost’s guys go as fast as possible.
To snap the ball that quickly, players have to learn to play between the snaps. See the hand signals or placards. Hustle to the line of scrimmage. Go.
They intend to do all that in the time it once took Nebraska under the previous staff to huddle up, get the play and arrive at the line of scrimmage. Tight end Jack Stoll said players had more time to think about their assignments before, so perfecting the “fast blinker” approach took most of spring camp.
“I think we’re still working to get 100 percent where Coach Frost wants us that,” Stoll said. “Day by day, we’re getting better and slowly used to the tempo. We’re getting faster and that’s awesome to see.”
Winter and summer conditioning workouts under strength coach Zach Duval — especially the rapid pace of multidisciplinary circuit workouts — helped instill the mental quickness it takes to run Frost’s system, Stoll said. Frost’s practice style — heavy on repetitions and pace, light on corrections that can be made later in the film room — creates an on-field lab for developing the trait. Then, Held said, some position groups will do extra “non-strenuous” tempo sessions after practice geared toward those handful of seconds between snaps and just after a snap.
What factors into slow blinking? Not necessarily capacity for learning.
Usually, Verduzco said, it’s not knowing the playbook, which Fisher intimated was the issue with Jackson. Some learn at a slower rate. For others, it’s commitment level — jumping into the boat with two feet — or timidity on the field.
It doesn’t help to be out of shape. Though Duval reworks the physical composition of players, multiple coaches have spoken to the improved emotional confidence that comes from a summer of conditioning under Duval.
And sometimes guys just don’t get it. NU has had a number of such players who picked up the offense or the defense slowly over the past six months, or the system wasn’t a fit. Many transferred out.
NU’s new staff desires to recruit for a fast-blinking fit.
“Some guys are gifted that way,” Verduzco said. “Some guys, their vision is sideline to sideline. Can you improve that? Certainly. But some guys just have that innate ability. They can see it that fast.”