The thought never left Colton Nieman’s mind last season.
Each play he lined up at his cornerback position for the UW-La Crosse football team, Nieman, a junior, was in an unenviable position. He was the new guy in an Eagles secondary that was full of experienced players, and he was opposite of senior Steve Law — a cornerback who had earned a reputation in the conference for being a tough matchup.
Opponents knew that targeting Law with their passing game was a losing proposition, and he proved why last season, allowing just seven catches by coach Mike Schmidt’s postseason count. That performance put quarterbacks’ eyes on Nieman and his matchup. This comes without mentioning that Schmidt’s base scheme features press man-to-man coverage from his cornerbacks.
So not only did Nieman have an inherent target on him, but there was also yards and yards of open field behind him. Translation: One mistake, one slip, one hesitation means a big play for the opposition.
So how did Nieman handle it? With two interceptions, six passes defended and 20 tackles and a skill for keeping a short memory.
“At that position, you’re going to get beat. It’s just a matter of when, not if. And when you get beat, how do you bounce back?” said Schmidt, who acts as the team’s defensive backs coach during individual periods of practice. “Ultimately, that’s Colton’s biggest strength. The kid just finds a way to come back and compete every time.”
Nieman didn’t start in the nonconference portion of last season’s schedule, but got his first start in the WIAC opener at Stevens Point. Not coincidentally, that was the first game of the season UW-L was going to be challenged with a deep passing game, as Pointers receivers Jerry Williams and Steve Herra were off to great starts.
Stevens Point went at Nieman on the first play from scrimmage with a deep pass down the sideline, but he knocked it from Williams’ hands before he could haul it in. It was a sign of things to come — La Crosse shut down the Pointers with a mix of pass-rush and tight coverage, and had a 28-0 lead by halftime.
That was a theme throughout the year, as Nieman was consistently challenged with deep passes. But more often than not, he was able to make a play.
“I really used Steve as some inspiration. I knew what kind of an athlete he was, and I was striving to be as good as him. Last year, he’s first team all-conference,” Nieman said at a UW-L spring practice this week. “That’s what I’m striving to be this year. I want to be just as good as him, if not better.”
Nieman handles himself as a care-free guy, and it’s an asset to him on the football field.
Against Oshkosh in Week 7, he was isolated against Sam Mentkowski — who would go on to be named a third-team All-American last season — and he took a couple of lumps. Mentkowski got behind him for two long completions to set up touchdowns in the first half, then caught two TDs in the second half.
Still, Nieman broke up two other deep attempts to Mentkowski, and was in position to challenge the catches. That ability to shake off a bad stretch and still is something that Schmidt commends.
“I admire that from him. He’s as good as anybody I’ve ever coached at being able to erase it and come back and play,” Schmidt said. “I think that’s just him. I think that’s how he’s wired, he just has that. You either have that or don’t.”
Nieman bounced back the next week and helped La Crosse knock off No. 9 Platteville on the road, then shut down Stout at home and throttle River Falls to end the season.
“That’s definitely a huge aspect of football, especially at the defense back position. You’ve really got to be able to let things go. I think the key for me this year is to just be consistent,” Nieman said.
UW-L led the WIAC in allowing 164.6 passing yards per game last season, and Nieman was a big part of that. Having that year under his belt has him more confident during spring practices. Schmidt said he sees it in the way Nieman communicates and prepares, and those are markers for a strong senior season.
“I’m a lot more comfortable this year, feeling like I know all the guys and they know me and they know what we’re all about,” Nieman said. “I’m just trying to make sure all these guys are inspired and motivated to go win a national championship.”