Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska’s 2023 Post-Spring Football Position Reset: Defensive Backs

May 11, 2023

Two transfer portals, winter workouts and an entire spring season have passed. There’s now a clearer picture for Nebraska’s scheme and personnel. Hail Varsity is taking a closer look at what we’ve learned about each position now that the spring season is over and the portal is closed.

Previous resets: Quarterbacks, Running backs, Wide receivers, Tight ends, Offensive line, Defensive line, Linebackers.

At one point in the spring season, Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule chuckled about the secondary depth. He flippantly mentioned Nebraska has maybe the deepest secondary room in the country. It came with a smirk and a grain of truth covered by hyperbole.

Nebraska entered the spring season with 19 scholarship players in the secondary, cornerbacks and safeties combined. That doesn’t include three walk-ons in the room. The Huskers also gain 2023 signing additions of D’Andre Barnes, Ethan Nation, Rahmir Stewart and Omaha Burke preferred walk-on Mason Jones this summer. So, the joke came partially based in numbers alone. The line about defensive back depth adds another layer when you consider the quality involved.

Quinton Newsome returns as a potential NFL cornerback. He’s started 24 straight games and led the Huskers with 10 PBUs last season. Myles Farmer started all 11 games he played in last season at safety. Farmer took on leadership qualities in the spring as fellow 11-game starting safety Marques Buford Jr. sat out. Buford suffered an ACL injury against Wisconsin and didn’t practice in the spring. He’ll be ready to go this summer. Malcolm Hartzog became the starting corner after four games in 2022. Rhule told Greg Sharpe on Sports Nightly earlier this week that Hartzog is the kind of player you get into coaching for. Defensive coordinator Tony White said Hartzog can fit multiple spots. As can Tommi Hill, the speedster back on defense who Hartzog leaped on the depth chart. Returning nickel Isaac Gifford also provides a veteran physicality.

Secondary head coach Evan Cooper agreed, “we have a bunch of them” during the spring season. He assured reporters at that time they try to rotate as much as possible.

“I think we have a bunch of good players,” Cooper said in March. “And it will be up to me to continue to develop them. We’re not, by any means, a finished product, but yeah. We’ve just got to keep working at it.”

Three former Huskers within the secondary entered the transfer portal after the spring season. Braxton Clark, Jalil Martin and Noa Pola-Gates all chose to transfer, leaving Nebraska with 10 scholarship corners and nine scholarship safeties. Michael Booker III also moved from corner to linebacker, where coaches see his future. White’s 3-3-5 defense involves dynamic, cross-trained members of the secondary, with some stepping into the rover position to act somewhat as a pseudo-linebacker. So while the room is deep, many will see the field at some point through rotations. For what it’s worth, Nebraska has since removed corner, safety or rover labels on its online roster and listed them simply as defensive backs.

It’s worth noting some of the names that emerged in the spring as potential breakouts. Omar Brown garnered praise from the coaching staff almost immediately, potentially on the heels of carrying 320-pound Teddy Prochazka across the width of the practice field. DeShon Singleton, Phalen Sanford, Gage Stenger and Javier Morton all stood out at points in the spring. Early enrollees Dwight Bootle II and Syncere Safeeullah also showed their willingness and ability to step in and make plays, even in the spring game.

Safeeullah showed strength tackling in space with a late-game stick on an off-tackle run. He also stuck stride-for-stride with Marcus Washington on a potential touchdown throw in the first quarter. Safeeullah also timed a leap perfectly to avoid a pass interference call and get his body in front of another potential touchdown to Washington. That ball, slightly underthrown by Jeff Sims, instead bounced off the freshman’s shoulder pads and incomplete.

Overall, Nebraska’s offense only sparked a few throws of 15 yards or more. One came on a comeback route near the sidelines from Billy Kemp IV. Another went on the seam route to tight end Nate Boerkircher for the game’s first throw. Quarterbacks didn’t test the Nebraska secondary much, instead utilizing check-downs and quick hits. Both Red and White finished 13-of-27 with an interception. Sanford stepped in front of a route to make a tough grab and Stenger baited Chubba Purdy, in the final attempt at finding the end zone, into threading the needle. Stenger instead plucked it from the air and returned it 28 yards.

After the Red-White Game, Newsome mentioned how the secondary embraced White’s installation. They attacked film study and corrected mistakes. He’s seen a lot of football and coaches believe he can see much more football at the next level. Considering all that, Newsome likes the strides Nebraska’s secondary made in the spring.

“I would say the defense grew along the way just in terms of flying around to the ball during every play,” he said. “We make sure everybody’s flying around to the ball and just eliminating mistakes and making sure everybody has that same mentality on the field when we’re going out there. It doesn’t matter the score. We are just going out on the field and dominating.”

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