Iowa State and TCU are pushing innovation defensively at the college level. The NFL, with roster constraints and do-it-all wrecking balls like Khalil Mack, is moving towards a position-less brand of football. The next trend in the sport is tossing out traditional specialists in favor of getting the best 11 guys on the field.
Nebraska is experiencing a little of that this spring, but not to the degree of others, and certainly not out of luxury.
To counteract Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson last season, the Los Angeles Chargers based out of a seven-DB formation for a game, which is just crazy to think about. TCU has adapted its 4-2-5 to match up against spread Big 12 offenses. Iowa State turned a quarterback into a linebacker/safety hybrid position and lined him up behind its linebackers but in front of its safeties in a modified 3-3-5 (insightful read here from Eleven Warriors on more of this). Position-less is a little bit of an oversimplification, but defensive football is changing as offenses grow more potent and efficient.
I thought Nebraska was changing, too. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander has players cross-training all over the field. Dicaprio Bootle, a returning starter at corner, has taken safety reps. Eric Lee Jr., another corner, is playing far more at safety. JoJo Domann has moved down into the box more and more. Interior defensive linemen are training outside and ends are beefing up to take snaps inside.
An attempt at that new brand of positional variance? Sort of. Guys are moving around because guys need to move around.
“We’re similar to an NFL roster right now because we don’t have enough depth,” Chinander said. “On an NFL roster you’ve got 53 guys, so if one guy goes down, the next best guy has to go in whether he’s a safety or a corner. That’s the same thing with us, that’s why we have to cross-train some of these kids right now. If Cam Taylor is not a starter—which, I don’t know if he is or not yet—but if he’s not, he’s next in. Or Eric Lee is next in. So, where are we going to put him? It doesn’t matter, you’ve got to go play them all.”
A sophomore who converted from a high school quarterback, Taylor is taking a good deal of reps this spring at safety. Nebraska has two established names at corner, but its replacing three of its top four guys at safety. If one of Bootle or Lamar Jackson were to go down with an injury, Taylor would step in, but until then it looks like he’s pushing at safety. The depth at that spot—or, more accurately, the proven dept—is lacking, so defensive backs coach Travis Fisher is mixing and matching to make up for it.
Fisher’s entire room meets together. Corners hear safety lessons and vice versa. Especially this spring, with the bulk of the reinforcements coming in the fall, Fisher is playing guys all over the place.
“I don’t have a free safety and a strong safety and a boundary corner and a field corner,” he said. “I think if you can have that, it’s hard to gameplan on you, you don’t know what guys are going to show up on you on Saturday. For the most part, I’ve got guys that can play at different positions in the room.”
In that respect, Nebraska could have a nice thing working for it. “If you have a talented six, you can play all of them and move them around and shift them to match personnel,” said linebacker Mo Barry.
But coaches talk of versatility as a necessity rather than the endgame. A senior leader of the defense, Barry has seen injuries cause chaos in the Husker secondary during his time in Lincoln. Chinander says the top teams who can add 4-stars like they’re nothing can be more specialized in their training, but with Nebraska’s current roster makeup, that’s not the case.
“I think you want to train them at one position, but then, again, if your 12th-best guy could play nickel, outside backer, safety [and] corner, we need to make sure he’s next in,” Chinander said. “I think it always kind of works that way. If you’re super, super deep, maybe you have the luxury of just training everybody at one position, but I think in college football you’re always going to be bringing those guys along and you’re going to have a next up. It’s just like on special teams, you’re not just an R3 on kickoff, you need to know all the positions because if you’re the 12th-best guy … you’re going in.”
The guy who kicked off this whole wonderance about Nebraska’s defensive shape is Domann, who moved from full-time safety to everywhere man in 2018. He started playing more at outside linebacker and slid out to nickel in sub-packages. It wasn’t a position change, but rather the staff looking at a playmaker and trying to get him on the field.
Nebraska doesn’t have much of anything firmly established at outside linebacker and it is in dire need of pass-rushers at that level, so Domann has been spending the bulk of his time in Jovan Dewitt’s room this spring.
He said a few weeks ago his position was called “Cinco,” but Chinander just calls him a SAM linebacker. “When we get to nickels and dimes, he’s kind of our X, we put him wherever we want him,” Chinander said. Not quite like Iowa State’s middle safety, as Domann is playing more on the perimeter, but it’s a step in that direction.
“What are you?” Chinander asks. “An outside backer? Are you a nickel? Are you a safety? I don’t know, but he needs to be on the football field, so it’s important to cross-train those guys a little bit.”
Chinander’s base is a 3-4, but the defense can get pretty multiple depending on matchups. Dewitt talked earlier this spring about being able to adjust on the fly with Domann on the field. A guy like Taylor probably isn’t ready to play in the box, but if he can be a nickel corner and also drop back to safety, Nebraska could get exotic with its looks.
“I think players can do more than what you probably ask them to do, it’s just how do you get it out of them?” Fisher said. “I think for the most part they’ve helped me be able to get more out of them just by having the right attitude and approaching it the right way.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.