Photo Credit: Eric Francis.

Nebraska’s 2023 Spring Football Positional Reset: Safeties, Nickels and Rovers

February 23, 2023

In total, Nebraska’s new coaching staff added 39 new scholarship players in the 2023 recruiting class. This puts the program’s scholarship numbers over triple digits in spring camp. With winter workouts ongoing and spring ball likely to impact who stands out to this coaching staff, Hail Varsity is taking a deeper look at what each position looks like right now.

Previous resets: QuarterbacksRunning BacksWide Receivers,Tight EndsOffensive LineDefensive LineEdge Rushers, Linebackers, Cornerbacks.

The back end of Nebraska’s defense may return with the most experience. The top five snap recipients at safety and nickel all return. That includes starting safeties Marques Buford Jr. and Myles Farmer, as well as starting nickel Isaac Gifford. Add in experienced and capable defenders like Javin Wright, Omar Brown, DeShon Singleton and Phalen Sanford, and Nebraska’s final line of defense looks stout.

Nebraska’s new coaching staff also added depth. Former Florida defensive back Corey Collier arrived in Lincoln via the transfer portal. He largely played special teams in Gainesville but was one of the nation’s most coveted safety recruits out of high school. Nebraska also signed the top safety recruit from Pennsylvania, Rahmir Stewart, in its 2023 recruiting class.

Secondary coach Evan Cooper told local media he saw NFL talent at the position. Former interim defensive coordinator Bill Busch followed those comments on radio by saying he believed Cooper was referring to Buford and Farmer. While Farmer is a full-go this spring, Buford’s spring is on the sidelines as he continues to recover from the knee injury he sustained against Wisconsin.

Before this group sorts competition on the field, they’re doing it in winter workouts. Head coach Matt Rhule wanted players close to each other and to build a more familial team bond at both Temple and Baylor. Every indication out of Memorial Stadium is that he’s doing the same at Nebraska. Winter workouts partially involves competition and teammates pushing each other. The entire coaching staff, including Cooper, believe in its usefulness.

“I want a group that competes at everything,” Cooper said last month. “I want tough players, we want hard working players. So we have to be that as a staff. Everything goes from top down. That’s why coach has been successful, he’s extremely competitive.”

While the Huskers return plenty of experience in these positions, who fits where is the standout question this spring. Defensive coordinator Tony White’s 3-3-5 scheme typically involves a rover in the secondary that can follow a designated player, an assigned portion of the field or simply pursue the ball. Older Husker fans remember the position well for its use during Nebraska’s 1990s dynasty. White hasn’t discussed the position much publicly, especially since coaches just started collaborating on actual football recently.

Brown, Gifford and Singleton could all fit the rover mold. That’s also a place where someone like Noa Pola-Gates could break through the depth chart and find the field. The former 8-man standout and Hastings College Bronco, Sanford could also work his way into the mix. There’s also the possibility that one of Nebraska’s existing linebackers drops back into the rover mix. Although, there’s currently not a lot of well-suited bodies healthy enough to move from the linebacker room.

“Moving forward it’s all about the playbook and the guys here in the program,” White told Jessica Coody on Early National Signing Day. “You spend so much time out on the road and recruiting in the program. You never want to discount the young men that are here who have put in the work. So now the attention turns to them that we have everything we need so that we give those guys a chance to go out there and play.”

Nebraska’s defensive back end was responsible for three interceptions last season, two from Buford and one from Farmer, and deflected 10 passes. Farmer (73) and Gifford (70) ranked second and third on the team in tackles in 2022. Buford was fifth with 59. At times the defensive backs covered well. At others, they were picked apart. The other worry, even for defensive backs, is run support. Nebraska ranked outside the top 100 programs last year, allowing 190.4 rushing yards per game and 4.55 yards per carry.

White’s aggressive defense includes defensive backs swarming in pursuit and, at times, attacking the line of scrimmage with blitz packages. With plenty of returning experience and now an added emphasis on athleticism and speed, White can get creative at safety, nickel and rover.

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