At first glance, it seems like Nebraska should be in good shape in the secondary in 2020. Starting cornerback Lamar Jackson and backup safety Eric Lee Jr. are the biggest departures, but don't overlook the transfer of Isaiah Stalbird. The walk-on spent most of the season at No. 2 on Nebraska's depth chart at safety.
Still, that leaves Nebraska with a starting corner returning in Dicaprio Bootle, a starting safety in Marquel Dismuke and a Swiss Army Knife in Cam Taylor-Britt. Plus, Deontai Williams, the other starter at safety in the season opener, will be back from the injury that cost him the final 11 games of the season.
At least in terms of returning players. Returning production, however, shows just how much Nebraska has to replace in the secondary compared to the rest of the Big Ten West.
We took a look at overall returning production, offense and defense, earlier in January, but there's a reason we're focusing only on the defensive backs here––it matters more.
That's based on research from Bill Connelly of ESPN, who has found that returning tackles and passes defended in the secondary have a stronger correlation to performance for the season ahead than returning tackles and passes defended for the defense as a whole. The data suggests that the toughest defenders to replace are defensive backs followed by linebackers then defensive linemen.
The Huskers have holes to fill at all three levels, including the most important one. Here's how Nebraska ranks in the Big Ten West based on returning tackles in the secondary.
|TEAM||RET. TACKLE %|
Had Williams been able to play more than a game in 2019, the Huskers would almost certainly be in better shape in the tackles category. Dismuke ranked third on the team, and first among DBs, in tackles last season, but that might've been Williams' spot in the rankings were he available. Even if he'd only replaced Lee's 20 tackles, that would've been enough for Nebraska to go from seventh in the division to sixth.
But the division as a whole should be strong in the secondary in 2020. Northwestern, Illinois and Purdue all did battle in 2019 with young defensive backfields and that's before we even get to Wisconsin which returns 100% of its tackles from the secondary.
And 100% of its passes defended, where the Huskers also have the lowest returning rate in the division.
|TEAM||RET. PDEF %|
Here's where Nebraska really feels the loss of Jackson, who had twice as many pass breakups (12) as any other Husker and also tied for the team lead with three interceptions. That said, it feels like the Huskers might be a little better off than the numbers suggest. Bootle showed he was more than capable as a pass defender with 15 breakups in 2018. Taylor-Britt matched Jackson's interception total last season. Cornerback Braxton Clark has shown promise in limited snaps and true freshman corner Quinton Newsome was on the depth chart all year despite seeing most of his action on special teams.
That's the key juxtaposition here. Based on what we know about the actual players returning, it doesn't feel like Nebraska's in bad shape in the secondary. I felt the Huskers were better off there than at linebacker or on the defensive line, and they still might be.
But that's why a uniform look at returning production can be useful––it forces you to at least pause and consider how many plays (not players) there are to actually replace. That could make for an interesting spring despite Nebraska returning three or four starters (depending upon how you want to count Williams) in the back four. There might be more of a competition here than you'd at first think. In addition to Clark and Newsome, there's a wave a young defensive backs looking for a way to get in the mix.
And there are certainly tackles, pass breakups and interceptions to be had in 2020.
The Grab Bag
- A source confirmed to Derek Peterson that Jack Cooper, previously in quality control on defense with the Huskers, is taking a job with Rhode Island. Bruce Feldman of The Athletic first reported the news.
- Wisconsin set a new school record for made 3-points against Nebraska last night in the Huskers’ loss in Madison. (3 Thoughts)
- New OC Matt Lubick hits the road recruiting today. Who are first prospects he needs to contact? Greg Smith put together a list.
- Jacob Padilla resets the NU roster for 2020 on the offensive line. (Premium)
Today’s Song of Today
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.