In Saturday’s win over Indiana, the Huskers made a change to the depth chart in the secondary.
Instead of Tommi Hill starting at cornerback as he had through the first four games of the year, true freshman Malcolm Hartzog took the spot opposite of Quinton Newsome, who is the team’s most experienced defensive back.
This wasn’t his first time seeing the field for the team. He had mostly contributed on special teams through four games, and the highlight of an overall strong game for him came in that department.
In the second quarter, an Indiana punt was blocked by nickel Chris Kolarevic. Hartzog scooped up the ball, and took it 30 yards into the endzone to give his team the lead. It was Nebraska’s first touchdown via punt block since joining the Big Ten.
“When I saw the fumble, my eyes got big and I knew I had to get to the ball,” Hartzog said postgame. “So I had to get in the endzone because I knew I don’t play offense no more. So I had to get in somehow.”
A year ago, he was playing high school football in Mississippi. He was a cornerback there too, but was also a running back who had amassed over 1,200 yards and 30 touchdowns on offense.
He found his way back to paydirt against the Hoosiers, along with helping the Huskers to one of their best defensive performances of the season. While Hartzog wasn’t credited with any tackles, he recorded one of the team’s eight pass breakups. He said he found out on Friday that he’d be starting, and generally felt positive with how he performed.
“I think I did good today but I think I need to improve just a little bit,” he said. “Get my technique better, but overall I think I did good this game.”
The opportunity to move into the role came partly due to the team’s coaching changes and reevaluation of the defense following a poor start to the season. Interim head coach Mickey Joseph previously mentioned wanting to give younger players the chance to earn more reps, something that gave the defensive back an additional burst of motivation.
“I’ve been going hard ever since the season started, but when (Joseph) said that, I felt like I had a better opportunity to get in,” Hartzog said. “So I kept going harder and harder each and every day at practice and it led to that.”
The coach also had praise for his new starter. Joseph said postgame that he expected Indiana to throw at Hartzog more often than Newsome due to the difference in experience, and he was happy with how it played out.
“Malcolm’s a warrior,” Joseph said. “He played big, he’s a kid from down south, from Mississippi, it’s not too big for him. He’s a confident kid, we talked to him all week about, ‘If you don’t block it, you got to pick up it and score,’ and he did that, but he played lights out at corner. I told him, ‘They’re not going to throw at Q, they’re going to throw at you,’ and he held his own.”
The defensive backs and the rest of the defense had their down moments as well, but this week brought noticeable improvement. The team will look to continue that momentum next week in a Friday night game against Rutgers.
“It felt good to get it on special teams, just to put us on top and just to keep going,” Hartzog said. “Don’t stop and just keep our feet on the gas.”