Many times, when facing the Tulane defense last season, the most desirable receiver on the field was the one furthest away from Lorenzo Doss.
It’s because Tulane’s preseason All-American cornerback repeatedly displayed the ability to change a game on any errant throw. His seven interceptions and keen field vision allowed him to lead the nation in interception return yards last year, highlighted by scoring a pair of touchdowns.
So, when those opposing quarterbacks drop back to pass this year, it’s Doss’ cornerback counterpart who is likely to see the ball coming his way.
That turns the spotlight on senior Taurean Nixon. The Memphis transfer spent last year behind starter Jordan Sullen after missing the majority of 2013 preseason camp due to an NCAA Clearinghouse issue following his transfer.
Now, with Sullen off to the Denver Broncos training camp, Nixon is entrenched in the spot across the field from one of the most feared defenders in the country. And he’s embracing the role as a man with a target on his chest.
“To be honest, I like it,” Nixon, a former Southern Lab standout, said. “I’m one of those people who play well under pressure, and I like the fact Doss is on the other side and they would much rather come at me. That’s going to help me get noticed and if I play well, it’s going to show up.
“I am finishing my senior season, and every look I get is a good one, so I think it’s going to really work out for me well. It’s a great opportunity.”
The transition into any spotlight is one Nixon relishes after an arduous two-year journey to the top of the depth chart. After starting 13 of his 18 games at Memphis in 2010 and 2011, he sat out the entirety of the 2012 campaign before getting clearance from the NCAA just a week before the season kicked off.
The quick transition created a steep learning curve in Nixon’s first few games at Tulane, and co-defensive coordinator Lionel Washington said Tulane’s system, which is trademarked by an abundance of aggressive press and man coverages, makes shaking the rust off more difficult than in the average scheme. It frustrated both Nixon and the Green Wave staff, since each side knew he possessed the talent to play, but learning the details took time and repetition to perfect.
Although by season’s end, Nixon had worked his way into the No. 3 cornerback position, playing most of the second half after Sullen was sidelined due to a concussion during the Green Wave’s comeback effort in a New Orleans Bowl loss to UL-Lafayette. Still, he finished the season with just one pass break-up and 13 tackles, a noticeable dip in production from his 33 tackles as a sophomore at Memphis.
“If you’re not playing, you’re not getting better, and it really put him in a bad situation to be out as long as he was last year,” Tulane coach Curtis Johnson said. “It put him a little bit behind the 8-ball, but he came on toward the end of the year, and I thought he ended up as one of our better corners.”
Both Washington and Johnson complimented Nixon’s performance in camp thus far, but the competition for his spot flared up while he missed more than a week due to an abdominal strain.
In Nixon’s absence, sophomore Richard Allen and redshirt freshman Parry Nickerson were able to showcase themselves with the first team. The cornerback depth pleased Johnson in particular, who said he wouldn’t be surprised if all three played meaningful snaps across from Doss this year.
Since returning to the practice field, Nixon has wrestled back the starting position. But it was a warning sign that Nixon said he knows all too well.
He knows if he’s unable to play or if the results aren’t favorable, there’s no guarantee that spot is ready when he comes back.
“Both Parry and Richard Allen did really well for us, and they showed me that I definitely don’t need to be afraid to put either one of those kids in the game,” Washington said. “I think if you can have depth at the corner position, that’s a very fortunate position to be in because most team’s have one or maybe two guys they can count on. I think we have a lot more.
“We want it to get to a point where it doesn’t matter what side of the ball those teams throw to, there’s going to be a great cornerback covering. We just need to be competitive, play hard and play well and with Nixon, Richard Allen and Parry Nickerson out there, we have a chance to do that.”