When it was announced that Chris Jones had suffered a torn meniscus in his knee during summer workouts back in mid-July, the initial timeframe for his return was projected at roughly four to six months.
Less than three months later, the senior cornerback is already back in pads and on the practice field for Nebraska, and there’s a real possibility he could be ready to return to NU’s lineup sooner than anyone could have expected.
Jones participated in his first full practice during Monday’s half-pads session after being cleared by team doctors over the weekend. He then suited up in full pads on Tuesday and apparently showed little rust from his extended layoff.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco didn’t want to speculate as to when Jones could be back playing in games again for the Huskers, but admitted that he looked every bit like the player many regarded as the team’s top overall NFL prospect entering the season.
“I’m trying not to get overly excited, just because we as an organization don’t want to put any undue pressure on him,” Diaco said. “But he looks really good. He looks really good. Quick, big, fast, smart, making the right choices.
“He stayed in his books, so the hand signals, the calls, the process, the checks - the things in play that might take a while to connect the dots, he’s doing a nice job. He’s really looked good the last few days.”
Does Diaco think Jones looks good enough to possibly make his return for Saturday night’s big showdown against No. 9 Wisconsin?
“It’s really entirely up to him, so I don’t have an opinion on that,” Diaco said. “I think the whole team is just letting him drive his own timing and tempo.”
The 6-0, 195, native of Jacksonville, Fla., put together an impressive junior campaign where he nabbed three interceptions with 10 pass breakups to earn consensus honorable-mention all-conference accolades.
Prior to his injury, Jones had been named to the watchlist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top defensive back.
Cornerbacks coach Donté Williams wasn’t quite ready to proclaim Jones was back to his previous level just yet, hinting that Jones still had a way to go before getting himself game-ready again.
“He just needs to get in football shape, timing and learning the defense,” Williams said. “Right now I’m just focusing on the guys who are playing in games… I hope one of these days he can step on the field and play. I don’t know when that will be, but I hope it’s one day sooner or later.”
While opinions on his status may vary, Jones is now closer than ever to making good on the promise he made via Twitter shortly after his injury, where he guaranteed he wouldn’t be out nearly as long as the original four-to-six month prognosis.
“I couldn’t believe he was hurt, to be honest, because he was so positive and the way he works,” linebacker Luke Gifford said. “He definitely looks like his old self.”
- Robin Washut
Knevel ready to rejoin starting lineup
David Knevel had big goals set for himself entering his senior year at Nebraska, but just as it’s been for him throughout his career, the season got derailed by injury before it could barely even begin.
During the Huskers’ win over Arkansas State in the season opener, Knevel suffered a high ankle sprain and a stress fracture in his foot. He was able to finish out the game, but has been sidelined that past four weeks since.
Though he didn’t play last week against Illinois, Knevel was able to finally practice the full week leading up to the game. Now, he said he feels nearly 100 percent and is determined to reclaim his spot as NU’s starting right tackle just in time for the biggest game of the year on Saturday.
“I really wanted to get back (this week),” Knevel said. “I really wanted to play this week. I love playing against Wisconsin. (The coaches) put up film on Sunday and they look really talented. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Redshirt freshman Matt Farniok took Knevel’s place as the No. 1 right tackle in Week 2 at Oregon, but he then suffered a broken wrist the following game vs. Northern Illinois and has been limited to an emergency backup.
That led to true freshman Brenden Jaimes burning his redshirt and starting the past two games. Knevel said he’s been proud of how his younger teammates stepped up in his absence, and that he did all he could to get them ready.
"I’m in their ears a lot, maybe too much,” Knevel said. “I think they’ve done well. They have each been thrown in the fire. Matt’s first game was in Oregon and I thought he played really well. That is a tough opponent to have your first game in.
“Jaimes has played really well in two games he has been in. They are both learning really fast. They are grabbing the bull by the horns so to speak.”
- Robin Washut
Huskers prepare for unique challenge in UW backfield
Wisconsin’s long history of skilled running backs has often been a thorn in Nebraska’s side.
The numbers 539 (the Badgers’ rushing total in the 2012 Big Ten championship game) and 408 (Melvin Gordon’s rushing total in the 2014 matchup) come to the surface as particularly forgettable memories for NU fans.
In 2017, however, a different challenge with a stable of fresh backs will meet the Huskers in Week 5.
Breakout true freshmanJonathan Taylor, sophomore Bradrick Shaw and junior Chris Jameshave all amassed over 100 yards on the season, a three-headed monster that provides a unique challenge in preparation.
“It looks and feels like a Wisconsin offense from when I was a player in this league,” said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who played linebacker at Iowa from 1992-1995. “Big, strong, cohesive, one unit; everybody knows their job. Big, tackle-breaking runners.”
Perhaps the most formidable of the bunch is Taylor, a former four-star back from Salem, N.J.
Taylor’s breakout performance came in Week 2 against Florida Atlantic when he reeled off 223 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries after toting the ball just nine times in Week 1.
“I really like him,” head coach Mike Riley said of Taylor. “He’s a really good athlete. He’s big, powerful and great balance.”
In last year’s overtime battle, Nebraska held Badgers star Corey Clement to just 82 yards on 19 carries. But second string Dare Ogunbowale continued Badger backups’ recent success against the Huskers, breaking through for 120 yards on 11 carries.
Shaw, who started the first game, and James are both over 100 yards on the year and will see time in different situations for the Badgers. But Riley made it clear the Blackshirts have to focus on Taylor.
“I think he’s really versatile,” Riley said. “He might be as good as they’ve had that we’ve seen since we’ve been here.”
- Matt Reynoldson
Cornerback tackling 'average, at best'
One area that has bothered Nebraska cornerbacks coach Donte Williams as much as anything about his group's performance this season has been, as he describes it, mediocre tackling.
“It’s been average at best,” Williams said. “Sometimes on the run game that goes on me on coaching. Making sure that they come in here and learn.
“High school as a corner, you don’t tackle. It’s every now and then when the play comes to you. Right now, they are being put in those positions to where they have to tackle. They need to make those plays.”
While Williams knows his corners need to step up their help against the run, he added that he wanted to make sure he didn't put too much emphasis on it this week to potentially impact his players' confidence.
“I think from time to time you stress one particular thing, that’s when something else bad happens,” Williams said. "It’s a stress of everything. It’s a great football team coming in here and we need to be prepared and ready to play.”
- David Eickholt
***The combined margin of victory in the two Nebraska-Wisconsin meetings in Lincoln since 2012 is only five points. Nebraska defeated the Badgers 30-27 in 2012, then Wisconsin won 23-21 at Memorial Stadium in 2015 on a field goal with four seconds to play.
***Nebraska has won 20 consecutive night games at Memorial Stadium. Included in that stretch is a 2012 win over Wisconsin. The Huskers are 46-5 all-time in night games in Lincoln.
***Nebraska's defense has gone seven quarters without allowing an opponent touchdown, totaling more than 115 minutes of game action. NU has allowed just two offensive touchdowns in its last 14 quarters of football.
***Mike Riley-coached teams have 16 wins over ranked teams in his 17 seasons as a college coach: 14 at Oregon State and two Husker wins over Michigan State in 2015 and Oregon in 2016.
***Nebraska Interim Director of Athletics Dave Rimington served as a graduate assistant coach at Wisconsin under Barry Alvarez. Rimington was on the Wisconsin staff in the early 1990s, helping the Badgers to the 1993 Rose Bowl. Rimington earned a master's degree in international business from Wisconsin in 1992.
***Wisconsin assistants Ted Gilmore (2005-10) and Joe Rudolph (2007) both spent time on the Nebraska coaching staff.
***Nebraska will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the 1997 national championship team this weekend, including a Friday night banquet and recognition on the eld on Saturday. The Huskers will also wear alternate uniforms created by Adidas honoring the '97 squad on Saturday night.