Safety was Nebraska’s most experienced position group last season featuring three seniors including Central Florida grad transfer Tre Neal who knew the defense better than anyone else in Lincoln.
All those guys are gone now, however, and defensive backs coach Travis Fisher has some decisions to make at safety. With so many underclassmen or upperclassmen with limited playing experience in the mix, competition is the theme of the spring.
“I keep those guys competitive every day, just keeping them competing every day and letting them understand there’s no starter,” Fisher said after practice on Wednesday. “I don’t have a starter. If you’re in the game, you’re a starter. That mind frame when it’s time for the next guy to get in the game, there’s no lag. That’s what I preach in the room and that’s what they hear everyday. So when I do have another group in, that group is just like the first group; when I have another group that group is just like the first group. It doesn’t really matter how I mix them up; the mind frame is set, the culture is set in the room.”
The one returning safety who did see significant playing time last season is junior Deontai Williams, a junior college transfer who has only been on campus for a year but already feels like a veteran in the safety room with so many underclassmen and more on the way.
“I’d say I’m the OG,” Williams said. “I help the young kids out, teach them what I know and help them out so they can put that in their game.”
Williams said he learned a lot from being around last year’s seniors — Neal, Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed, and is trying to follow in their footsteps as a leader in the safety room.
“What I took from Tre is his smartness, being a coach on the football field, being really like a football player, just being a student of the game,” Williams said. “Every route coming, every play coming, every run coming. From Aaron and Reed, just making big plays, looking around and seeing if you can help a teammate out and end up jumping a pick or making a great tackle.”
Williams spent two seasons at Jones County Community College, redshirting his second year after a shoulder injury, before arriving in Lincoln last year as an early enrollee. He played in all 12 games as a reserve on defense and a special teams player, seeing the field in a lot of Nebraska’s sub-packages. He totaled 23 tackles, two pass break-ups, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.
“Last year when he came in, I had a nice group of safeties last year so for him, it was learning the playbook,” Fisher said. “Those guys had the edge on that a little bit and then once you learn the playbook, you’ve got to learn how to be a great teammate. You have to speak up, you have to be able to talk, you’ve got to know your teammates. He had a nice little job, a nice little task. But he took it and he took it like a man and he did play some. He played a lot and made a few plays when he got in that kept him getting more reps and more reps. Now, he’s in a position that he can control it if he wants and if he does a great job he can control it. He’s sitting in a good spot.”
Williams admitted he was swimming in it a bit last season but has grown much more comfortable and confident within the defense over the past year.
“Last year, I was learning so it was more like a robotic type of me,” Williams said. “This year I know everything so I play freely, I’m able to know everything, know routes, coverages, all that. I’m just free and relaxed and having fun.”
Williams certainly stood out in his limited opportunities with his speed and athleticism, but Williams said he was still thinking more than playing. That’s not the case any more.
“What I look like now is 10 times better,” Williams said. “I’m moving full speed because I know everything. What I mean by robotic is I had to make sure I was doing the right thing, doing my job. Now that I know how to do my job, I can mix it up and put some of the stuff that I already have, the athletic ability that I already have, into it.”
"Difference for him right now is he always played with speed and violence,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “The difference for him right now is that he really understands what we want to get done. It's not just renegade football. It's not intramural football right now anymore. It's running stuff within the scheme of the defense, playing within the scheme of the defense, but still playing with that same violence and intensity he had when he kind of didn't know what he was doing."
His athletic ability is a big part of why Williams is able to make disruptive plays, but so is his background and his work ethic.
“I’ve always had a knack at that,” Williams said. “That’s stuff I work on by myself, I just work on ball drills, working on running hash to hash, stuff like that. I’ve always had that playmaker ability since I was a little boy playing little league. I played offense in high school before I came to defense, and the reason why I came to defense is my last name. My dad played in the NFL so they put me on defense.”
His dad is Roosevelt Williams, a former third-round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft out of Tuskegee who played cornerback for two seasons in the NFL.
“I learned a lot from him too,” Williams said about his father. “It’s like a competitive thing. I always tell him that I’m better than him, like ‘at your age, I’m way better than you,’ and stuff like that. I always tell him I’m the 2.0 of him. Just simple stuff like that. Other than that, I always try to get wisdom and words from him from playing in the game for a long time. Right now, he’s a [junior college] coach so I always try to learn from him.”
Williams said his dad has gone to a game at Nebraska and has offered critiques any time he’s watched, encouraging Deontai to be a playmaker any time he got on the field.
Continued physical development will help Williams be that playmaker the Huskers need. He’s currently at 200 pounds and his goal is to reach 210 by the time the season begins.
“Deontai is doing a great job,” Fisher said. “His body, he’s so lean and cut up. His job is we have to force him to eat and if he wants to put on that weight, he has to understand you’ve got to get the proper rest and that lesson that Coach [Zach] Duval is speaking to him and teaching him everyday, he’s got to buy into that and do that.”
Nebraska asks a lot of its safeties, and Fisher said he likes what he’s seen from Williams after a week-and-a-half of spring ball. But Nebraska essentially had three starting safeties plus Williams contributing last season and spots are up for grabs for everyone in that room right now.
“Deontai is making a lot of strides,” Fisher said. “He made a couple great plays today, missed a couple ones that I wish I could get back today. But he knows; I’m on him tough and those guys, they have such a big role in our defense and you need more than just Deontai. It’s a whole group of them and you need this guys to all be on the same page.”
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.