Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Malcolm Hartzog Bought Into New Nebraska’s Defense After Breakout Freshman Finish

April 01, 2023

Nebraska changed defensive coordinators after four difficult games last season. One involved giving up 640 yards to Georgia Southern, another 580 yards to Oklahoma. One was the only loss Northwestern handed out in 2022 and the other, the lone win against North Dakota, was tied late in the third quarter. With the coaching change came the defense’s only significant personnel shift.

Malcolm Hartzog rose from promising freshman to Big Ten starter ahead of the Indiana clash. Months later, Hartzog remembered nerves before the game. He only needed one play to settle in—the rest was football. Hartzog, the first true freshman to start at corner for Nebraska since 2016, returned a blocked punt into the south end zone in the second quarter to send Memorial Stadium into a frenzy. He started every game after and led the defense with three interceptions. About six months removed from the game that changed his freshman season, he’s continuing his ascent.

“I did it and then I was good,” he said of settling in after that first play. “I think that’s going to translate well this year, not being as nervous as I was last year, and going out there every play.”

Opposing offenses sometimes targeted Hartzog for his inexperience and his size (5-foot-9, 170 pounds). Coaches knew they’d come after him. And while he welcomed the challenge, he didn’t want to be the one to give up a deep ball. Hartzog knocked away a few of those passes he faced. Others ended in big offensive gains. The studious corner learned to live with that.

“I know the play is going to happen so I’m not scared about that this year,” Hartzog told local media on Thursday. “I’m going to go out there and rely on my technique that I’m being taught every day.”

He’s now eagerly learning Tony White’s defensive system and directly working with secondary coach Evan Cooper. Hartzog appreciates both, explaining that Cooper pushes them and gives them the extra drive to always give their full effort.

Hartzog is taking reps at multiple positions but still considers himself a corner. The Mississippi native likes the defensive mentality. Learning the various responsibilities in the playbook makes sense to him. Each position is different with similar techniques and responsibilities. He looks over his diligent notes every day to make sure he retains the new information. He asks questions when his notes don’t hold the answers. Intensive studying sessions helped him grow his confidence to the point where he offers help to those who need it.

“It’s easy for me to learn the playbook and everybody’s responsibilities,” he said, “so I know if somebody mess up, I’ll be able to correct them.”

Hartzog said he’s also learned from returning cornerback Quinton Newsome, who has started the last 24 games straight for the Huskers. Not only on technique and defensive back work but mentality. Newsome encouraged him to leave nerves behind and use a successful freshman season as a catalyst to a successful sophomore campaign. Other returners like Marques Buford and Myles Farmer help build comfort and familiarity. Their encouragements help Hartzog tap into this studious work to almost step into a leadership role. On the field and in film study.

“Helping my teammates, my brothers, get to where they want to be and help them provide,’ Hartzog said. “When they get their chance on the field they won’t be nervous like I was and get them ready for their moments.”

Hartzog isn’t a part of Nebraska’s renewed emphasis on special teams. He’ll stay on defense amid a loaded secondary room. The competition in that room drives him to daily improvements. Ideally, that means pushing his teammates to improve as well. Hartzog feels he’s matured since the Indiana game and wants to give that growth back to everyone in the room. He shares his playbook comprehension to solve teammates’ questions. Some times that’s on the sidelines. Other times it’s showing what he can do between the whistles.

“Everybody’s getting a chance to go out there and show what they got to the new coaches,” Hartzog said. “I feel like it’s good for everybody to get their chance and show what they’ve got.”

  • Never miss the latest news from Hail Varsity!

    Join our free email list by signing up below.