Heading into the 2019 season, Erik Chinander had an idea of what he wanted his defense to look like, and that idea including Deontai Williams at safety. Before the end of the first quarter, however, Chinander lost Williams for the season to a shoulder injury, leading to a season of experimenting in the secondary.
Lamar Jackson is gone, but the rest of the secondary is mostly intact and Chinander gets to add Williams back into the picture for the 2020 season. What did Nebraska miss out on in 2019 by losing him, and what will he bring to the back end this season? Let’s dive into the film to find out.
Nebraska rolled out a base defense featuring Williams and Marquel Dismuke at safety against South Alabama in the 2019 season opener, and that lasted for all of 16 snaps. In that time, he made two tackles and committed a personal foul.
A technical glitch has wiped Nebraska’s first defensive drive off the BTN+ replay, so I don’t have any insight into how he did on that drive. But I did watch his other 10 snaps. The action didn’t head his way until the sixth play of South Alabama’s second drive.
On third and 17 with Nebraska leading 7-0 in the first quarter, Williams was rolling back toward the deep middle of the field when South Alabama snapped the ball.
Quarterback Cephhus Johnson dropped back, surveyed the field then took off to his left.
Johnson beat the entire Nebraska defense to the edge and turned the corner up the sideline. As Johnson crossed the line of scrimmage, Williams entered the picture and quickly closed the distance.
As Johnson worked his way up the sideline, Williams squared him up then launched himself forward, shoulder first. However, as Williams braced himself to launch forward, Johnson side-stepped into the white paint.
When Williams made contact, Johnson was already out of bounds.
It was a bang-bang play and a tough call, but the officials threw the flag for a late hit out of bounds. Williams has a reputation for being a big hitter from his junior college days, but this play in particular showed he can be a bit reckless at times. One thing I noticed in his film is a tendency to throw himself into the defender without wrapping up, and it’s cost him at times. On the other hand, he also forced his first fumble as a Husker by putting his shoulder directly on the ball with the same tackling technique, so it can be a double-edge sword at times.
Two plays later, on second and 8, Williams made what was probably a touchdown-saving tackle (though he undid the good with a mistake on the next play, which we’ll get to momentarily). South Alabama ran an option play and the quarterback kept the ball, running around the right side. Caleb Tannor missed the tackle at the line of scrimmage and Mohamed Barry wasn’t fast enough to catch up to him, but Williams flew in from his deep safety position and grabbed Johnson by the back of the jersey, slinging him down.
The play went for 8 yards, setting up first and goal from the 3-yard line. South Alabama used a tight formation, so Williams lined up close to the line off the right side. On the snap, Williams blitzed.
South Alabama ran the option again. Williams went untouched into the backfield but Cephus juked him out of his shoes, side-stepping the diving Williams and running through the gap he just abandoned.
Williams ate turf while Johnson waltzed into the end zone for the touchdown.
Williams shot his guns, but he missed the target. Nebraska used Williams mostly as a deep safety, but he also played some in the slot and blitzed a few times, though he never got home. He has the speed and physicality to be an effective blitzer, though.
Williams’ next (and last) tackle cost him the rest of his season. On first and 10, he lined up over the slot.
South Alabama set up a running back screen out wide. The slot receiver tried to reach Williams to block him, but he recognized where the ball was going and started moving toward the sideline.
Williams got his shoulders past the receiver attempting to block him and muscled his way forward as the back approached the line of scrimmage.
Williams dove forward and wrapped up the back’s legs, rolling over and throwing him down.
Williams did a good job of quickly diagnosing the play and defeating the block, and he showed strong hands to bring the ball-carrier down. However, he also came up clutching his shoulder, had to check out and never returned.
It’s hard to learn too much from such a small sample size, but we did get a full season from Williams in 2018, even if it was in a smaller role. Williams played a lot in Nebraska’s dime defense and also got some snaps in the base as a back-up safety. He played in all 12 games, recording 23 tackles (0.5 for loss), two interceptions, two forced fumbles, two pass break-ups and one fumble recovery.
Though it came in extreme garbage time, Williams showed off his coverage ability and soft hands against Michigan in week four. On third and 4, Williams lined up over the slot.
The receiver ran his route up the slot, giving a slight fake towards the middle of the field before running a corner route. Quarterback Brandon Peters rolled out to his right.
Peters took a shot at the end zone, but Williams was in good position to prevent a completion.
He did more than that, though, laying out to pick off the pass.
The officials initially ruled that Williams went out of bounds before completing the catch, but a review showed that he managed to get his knee down before hitting the sideline.
The interception was one of the most impressive plays Williams has made in his 12 games and one quarter as a Husker, and it showed why the coaches see him as someone who can be valuable both as a deep safety and as a slot corner.
Williams got his first start against Purdue as Nebraska chose to use its nickel as its base defense. He played around 60 snaps and recorded three tackles. Williams played primarily deep safety and wasn’t involved in the direct action all that often. That game did produce this play, however.
Ben Stille already had David Blough in his clutches and got credit for the sack on the play, but Williams decided he had to make sure Blough was REALLY down and launched himself through the air, grabbing Blough around the helmet and swinging through the air.
The following week against Wisconsin, Williams only played 13 snaps but made the most of them with five tackles including four in the span of five plays at one point. He had at least one tackle in six of Nebraska’s last seven games of 2018 and added a handful more splash plays to his stat sheet.
The coaches have spoken very highly of Williams. If he can improve his technique and consistency as a tackler while maintaining his edge and physicality, the playmaking ability he displayed as a sophomore could turn him into one of Nebraska’s most versatile defensive weapons.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. 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.