We don’t talk enough about what the loss of Deontai Williams did to the defensive back room.
One ripple: Nebraska has, at safety this season, relied on guys like Eric Lee Jr. (a converted corner), Eli Sullivan (a walk-on), Cam Taylor-Britt (a converted quarterback who learned corner his first season then safety his next) and now its best cover-corner in Dicaprio Bootle. All the while, Marquel Dismuke is the other safety trying to settle in as a first-time regular starter. Lots of moving pieces.
Another: as one coach put it to me a few weeks ago, Nebraska thinks Williams is the best player on that side of the ball. Period. And the Blackshirts had him for two quarters.
Nebraska’s secondary has been in a constant state of flux since.
“With guys being out and so many guys being banged up this time of the year, that important piece of practicing like that in the spring and in the summer—having guys in different areas—is helping us right now,” defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said.
Fisher played everyone everywhere in the offseason. Bootle got reps at safety in the spring. Taylor-Britt played safety in fall camp. Lee made the move over. Young safeties like Noa Pola-Gates played corner. Fisher’s M.O. is cross-training so his group is adaptable. It was a luxury then to prepare for when it might become necessity.
Three weeks ago, when Nebraska traveled to Purdue without Taylor-Britt, positional versatility was as important as its been all year. Bootle had to slide back to safety and Nebraska had to roll with redshirt freshman corner Braxton Clark.
Clark played well enough at corner, and Bootle showed enough at safety, that when Taylor-Britt came back this past weekend against Wisconsin, instead of sliding him back into the safety spot he’d occupied for weeks, he played in the slot.
“Cam is a lot better at corner or in the slot,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said Tuesday when he met with the media. “Dicaprio is a really intelligent football player. It’s just a better move to have him at safety right now and Cam at corner.”
So, expect more configurations with Clark and Bootle on the field together this week against Maryland.
Nebraska’s pass coverage hasn’t been anything to write home about this year. The Huskers aren’t keeping passing games off schedule enough (ninth in the league in yards per pass attempt allowed) and they aren’t minimizing the big plays well enough (ninth in 20-yard completions allowed). Yeah, senior corner Lamar Jackson still leads the conference in pass break-ups and the Huskers have third-most picks, but big-play prevention at this point is reliant on taking the ball away.
It would then seem counterintuitive to play your best corner (Bootle) out of position, right? The junior said he’s still settling in, still learning the intricacies of the position. At cornerback, he says he’s on an island. There are more one-on-one battles. At safety, he’s playing clean-up.
“Just trying to get guys lined up the right way, trying to clean up different guys’ mistakes,” he said.
It has helped Clark having Bootle right there backing him up. Nebraska is high on the 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman. This playing time right now is valuable.
“He’s really growing up, for real,” Bootle said. “I’ve been telling him that daily. He’s growing up, he’s getting a lot better, coaches are trusting him more, so he’s going to get more looks.”
Fisher said almost the same thing.
“Braxton has grown a lot, I’m starting to get more comfortable with putting him in the game,” he said. “They ran some tough routes on him in the [Wisconsin] game and he covered—blanket coverage—on them. I’m happy with that. Just got to continue to get better.”
Even with the focus still squarely fixed on this season and these last two games and trying to manufacture a third one, Nebraska is setting up the secondary for long-term success with its decisions.
Young guys like Myles Farmer (three games played) and Noa Pola-Gates (recovering after surgery but in good spirits) spent this year doing what Clark did last year. Clark’s grooming as the heir apparent to senior Lamar Jackson’s spot has accelerated. Taylor-Britt has developed a do-it-all ability and Bootle has grown a little more cerebral in the way he plays.
Deontai Williams will be a nice piece to add back to the puzzle next offseason.
“It’s going to be good for us,” Bootle said. “Everybody’s going to be playing everywhere, different guys are going to be able to be plugged in at different spots. It’ll just make our room even better. The more guys we have that are capable of going out there and giving it their all every Saturday, and coming out every practice and giving it their all, just continue to keep moving and it’ll keep us fresh, keep us on the right track, it’ll be good for us moving into the future.”
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.