The cornerback garnering most of the attention in Lincoln this week is one who hasn’t played a snap in Nebraska’s first five games, but will see the field for the first time Saturday night.
It’s a justified intrigue, of course, because senior Chris Jones cut a 4-6 month recovery from a torn left meniscus in mid-July to less than 2½. Huskers head coach Mike Riley confirmed he'll be available to play despite just four days of padded practice since spring ball, but may not be asked for full-time duty.
A cornerback a little further down the list at the water cooler here — but no doubt being discussed in No. 9 Wisconsin’s offensive meeting rooms this week — saw his heaviest workload of the season last week against Illinois and appears poised to continue making an impact.
That is redshirt freshman Dicaprio Bootle, used mostly in nickel situations through the Huskers’ first four-plus games before playing 17 of 21 defensive snaps in the second half of NU’s 28-6 win over the Illini.
Bootle’s role in the defense has ticked up over the season partially because of injuries, but also because he’s shown he can hold up.
“I just feel more comfortable out on the field,” he said. “I trust myself more, I trust my abilities more.”
Before senior safety Joshua Kalu was injured against Oregon on Sept. 9, NU deployed two main nickel packages — one with Antonio Reed as a third safety and one with Bootle as a third corner. Since Reed has played every down following Kalu’s injury, Bootle is the go-to fifth defensive back.
When he’s in, he plays the boundary corner spot — which sophomore Eric Lee handled in base defense — and Lee slides to the slot.
Bootle, listed at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, said he didn’t realize Lee had come out of the game — he looked as if he had some sort of pain — after a second-down run early in the third quarter against Illinois.
NU did go to nickel, with Jeremiah Stovall in Lee's slot position, Bootle to the boundary and sophomore Lamar Jackson in his usual place on the field side.
“I thought we were just going to our nickel package and that’s why I was going in,” Bootle said. “After that, I just kind of stayed in. I’m going to answer the call whenever. Whenever my number is called, I’m ready to go out and battle.”
Bootle played the boundary the rest of the way, even though Lee was healthy enough to return when the Huskers played nickel in the fourth quarter.
“It’s not really what stood out about him,” cornerbacks coach Donté Williams said of Bootle. “It’s just kind of like even when I coach him, I’m coaching everyone in the room, so it’s kind of all of them. They all have to learn from each other’s mistakes because we rotate so many guys, which is a help for us in keeping guys fresh, and they’re able to play on special teams and everything else. It’s kind of like coaching the whole room when he makes a mistake or makes a play.”
Bootle made a mistake and a play on the same snap in the third quarter against the Illini.
On second-and-goal, quarterback Chayce Crouch threw a fade for Ricky Smalling in the back-right corner of the end zone. Bootle was a step behind in man coverage but was able to force Smalling out of bounds before he completed the catch.
“That was terrible — it was horrible technique by me,” Bootle admitted. “I probably went into some kind of lapse and they caught me sleeping. Once I finally realized the ball was coming, I saw his eyes light up and he started making that move toward the ball.
“It’s just one of those plays where, it might not have been pretty at the beginning, but I just fought through it and made the play at the end.”
Overall, the Miami native has fared well against down-the-field throws. He will likely see more against the Badgers. The Blackshirts, after all, will need to deploy resources to help slow down UW’s running game, and sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw deep several times last week against Northwestern.
The Huskers secondary is young, but could look significantly different as the season goes along, depending on Jones and Kalu. One way or another, Bootle appears poised to keep finding ways onto the field.