Through the first seven games, Nebraska has played 10 different defensive backs on defense, and that is mostly because its top four have all missed games with injuries. However, after a bye week, Nebraska is looking like it will be getting everybody back.
Th first blow happened during the offseason as senior cornerback Chris Jones tore his meniscus. Jones had a strong argument for being the best player on the entire team and was likely the team’s top NFL prospect coming into the season. Losing him meant Nebraska was left with sophomores and a redshirt freshman at the position.
As Nebraska moved through the season, the Huskers lost first Joshua Kalu to a hamstring injury, meaning junior Antonio Reed had to step in (albeit with a cast on his hand because of a broken thumb). Then Reed got hurt and Aaron Williams followed suit.
Jones miraculously returned after just three months (despite a projected four-to-six month recovery timetable) and played against Wisconsin in week six. Nebraska worked him in slowly, giving him 19 snaps in that first game, then gave him a bit more work the following week.
“First coming back, my technique was kind of shaky,” Jones said. “Not playing ball for that long, three months, not doing anything, the technique is going to be shaky a little bit. I was able to get my technique back on point. Every day so far has gotten better. I’m just going to keep perfecting it and I’ll be back technically-sound.”
Kalu returned from his injury, but he was still hampered by injury. Against Ohio State in week seven, Nebraska rolled out Kalu virtually on one leg and redshirt freshman cornerback Dicaprio Bootle at safety during the first half. By the second half, Kalu was done and they moved on from the Bootle experiment, playing senior Kieron Williams and redshirt freshman Marquel Dismuke.
Getting young players snaps is a benefit for the long-term, but for a defense that relies on communication from the back line and sure tackling, there have been plenty of growing pains.
“That’s the gift and the curse about having guys that are hurt,” safeties coach Scott Booker said. “Guys have to step up and you’ve seen other guys in there, whether it be Marquel Dismuke or Kieron, who has a lot of reps from his three years playing prior. Even some other guys that have played corner have now come and played safety. Getting guys reps is good but it’s also good to have guys that are back.”
Now, after a bye week to let all those strains and bruises heal, the Huskers have a great shot at having their whole secondary available.
“The extra bye week helped a lot of guy that are banged up get back healthy again,” Jones said. “It helped me out a lot. It felt great for my body. I know it felt great to a lot of those guys who have been playing the whole season.”
However, Jones said he was ready to go from the moment he stepped back onto the practice field for the first time.
“I feel more than 100 percent now, more than 100 percent … I felt like I was 200 percent when I first came out here to practice,” Jones said. “My body is feeling great. I’m thankful for that.”
The safety position is crucial for Bob Diaco’s defense as they are responsible for the primary communication from the back end. Getting Kalu and Williams playing alongside each other with Reed available to spell either one will be key if the defense is going to improve.
“I love it,” Booker said. “Obviously anybody would want to have their guys that they started off the season with and have a healthy, full platoon of guys. We’re excited that everybody’s back.”
Diaco doesn’t want to get too excited until he actually sees all of the players back out there in live competition.
“I’m trying to temper it just a bit because I’m not exactly sure if everyone’s going to get to 100 percent,” Diaco said. “Let’s just say that we get to the game and that is the case, that will be really fun to see those puzzle pieces in place like we thought they would be in the summer. To see that group line up like we had intended for them to line up I think is going to be pretty exciting. I’m just kind of tempering a bit because right now they’re coming back still; they’re not all at that 100 percent mark.”
For the first time this season, Nebraska has a chance to roll out its preferred starting secondary, which would be a big boost as the Huskers begin the stretch run.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.