One of Nebraska’s strongest positions, on paper at least, in 2023 is at the back end of the defense. Nebraska head coach Matt Rhule and secondary coach Evan Cooper both complimented Quinton Newsome and Myles Farmer as NFL prospects. Marques Buford Jr., while returning from injury, provides another proven cover man. Rhule, Cooper and defensive coordinator Tony White all praised sophomore Malcolm Hartzog, who comes off a momentous freshman season. Plus, there’s freshmen Syncere Safeeullah, who made plays in the spring game, and Ethan Nation, who didn’t enroll early but did play in the Under Armour All-America Game.
The players are there in Nebraska’s secondary. And they could all be put in positions to make plays within White’s defense.
White played linebacker at UCLA and learned the 3-3-5 defense under mastermind Rocky Long. When he moved into coaching, White found his footing coaching cornerbacks at San Diego State for Long. The Aztecs’ secondary played a key role in the program’s rise to the top of the Mountain West during White’s near-decade at that helm. San Diego State won three conference titles and made eight bowl games in his nine seasons there. The Aztecs’ secondary ranked in the nation’s top five in interceptions two of his final three seasons there (leading the country one year). Their pass coverage grades never fell below 31st nationally in his final four seasons there. Four Aztec defensive backs were selected in the NFL Draft during White’s time there, including Damontae Kazee. Kazee is the first ever two-time Mountain West Player of the Year.
“It’s just competing,” Kazee once recapped. “Tony White, he used to tell us, all the DB’s, we used to compete every week. So, we just used to go out there every week and have fun, and that’s basically what we’re trying to do, trying to get interceptions. That’s what we do, we’re ball guys. We fly, have fun. If you would have gone to one of our practices at San Diego State, you would have loved it because all we did was have fun. But we also worked, too.”
The Aztecs also ranked among the top-15 schools in the country in pass efficiency during White’s time there. They finished No. 15 in the country in passing yards allowed per game (178.7) during his last season there.
White credited Long, and coach Danny Gonzalez, with instilling knowledge leading into his first defensive coordinator job. White took over the Syracuse defense after two years at Arizona State. His first season at Syracuse comes with some warped stats because of the oddities of the COVID season. Still, the Orange scored three defensive touchdowns with as many freshmen All-Americans. That hinted at things to come for the defense, secondary included, that became known as “The Mob.” From 2020 to 2021, Syracuse’s defense jumped 93 spots in total defense rankings—the largest jump in the country.
That 2021 campaign was one of the program’s best defensive seasons in modern history. Syracuse ranked No. 26 in the country by allowing 204.2 passing yards per game. Then, last season, Syracuse finished tenth in defensive touchdowns (three), No. 19 in pass defense (188.8 yards) and No. 35 in scoring defense (22.7). Syracuse also compiled sacks and tackles for loss in this time, partially because of the persistent and unpredictable attack strategies, and also because of impressive coverage. Three defensive backs—Ifeatu Melifonwu, Andre Cisco and Garrett Williams—were selected into the NFL Draft during White’s three-season stint as defensive coordinator. (Williams was selected in this year’s Draft after White’s departure but his growth almost entirely occurred while playing under White.)
“It’s more than just one person making one play,” Williams told journalist Emily Leiker in Syracuse of White’s defense. “I think it speaks to all the little plays that people probably forget or the little things people are doing every play to set up somebody else to make the play.”