Travis Fisher very much encourages competition in his defensive back room. The Husker secondary coach actively finds ways to poke and prod it along. He says no spots are safe despite returning two super-senior safeties with bundles of experience and an NFL-hopeful corner.
“Hopefully one of those second-string guys—because it’s a very talented group—is a starter,” he said Monday. “The second team, just because you’re practicing in that group, it doesn’t mean you’re staying in that group. Hopefully one of those guys becomes a starter.
“I preach it every day in meetings, I preach it on the field. There’s no waiting around.”
Particularly in the spring, where Nebraska can throttle back the workload of some of its more veteran defenders in order to redirect some live action to younger guys.
Fisher’s words can simultaneously inspire confidence in the guys climbing the ladder and light a fire under the ones higher up. It’s not hard to understand the strategy at play here, but Fisher’s provocation of competition might not just be lip service.
The next five up, or the second group, or the “1.5s” as Fisher called some of them, are inexperienced but plenty talented. They include fourth-year corner Braxton Clark (6-4, 210), third-year corner Quinton Newsome (6-foot-2, 180 pounds), second-year corner Nadab Joseph (6-2, 190), third-year safety Myles Farmer (6-3, 205), and third-year safety Noa Pola-Gates (5-11, 180).
“It’s very important for those guys to be able to get reps,” Fisher says.
Clark is the oldest of the group, though still just a sophomore by eligibility. He played in four games during his redshirt year in 2018, then played in every game as a redshirt freshman in 2019. That year he had 11 tackles, a pick, and a fumble recovery. Fisher said at the start of spring ball in early April that had Clark not suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in preseason camp last year, he might have pushed for a starting role.
Now, Clark is hoping to put his injury behind him, but he’s still somewhat limited in spring ball. The Huskers have been holding him out of live periods so as not to risk a setback in his recovery. “But I do see some great things out of him,” Fisher said. Clark is picking up his play as spring ball moves along.
The guy with his nose in front right now for the opposite corner spot to Cam Taylor-Britt is Newsome.
“Right now, Quinton Newsome is doing a very good job at that spot,” Fisher said. During the open practice media observed this past weekend, Newsome operated with the ones for the majority of his snaps. “It’s all about just being able to take the coaching, being able to take the classroom teaching to the field, and then being able to make mistakes in practice and come back and correct the mistake.”
He’s a player who looks to be playing with a great deal of confidence.
Defensive backs will say one of the most important traits required to excel at the position is an almost irrational confidence. An ability to make a mistake, get beat, etc. on one play and then come back the next as though it never happened.
Newsome has played in 18 of a possible 20 games over his first two seasons in Lincoln. He’s seen a lot of football. It’s not surprising to hear he’s got an early edge in the competition for playing time.
“Quinton has played reps and taken reps in the game. Now he’s got to go out and take that job,” said defensive coordinator Erik Chinander last week. “That job is not going to be given away. Somebody’s going to have to take it.”
At safety, there isn’t an open spot necessarily, but Fisher seems more than pleased with what he’s gotten from Farmer and Pola-Gates.
“Oh, they’re brothers,” Fisher said of the safety duo. “Great chemistry. Myles is looking a lot better than he was at the beginning of spring just because he’s getting used to being on that ankle.”
Farmer said he doesn’t quite feel 100% yet, but he’s still feeling good. Confidence remains high after playing well in limited opportunities last season.
As for Pola-Gates, he hasn’t gotten the same runway as some of his peers, but Fisher has now said on multiple occasions that will likely change this year.
“Big-time jump right now,” he said of the Arizona native. “Noa is probably sitting right where Myles was at somewhere during the season last year.”
That would be the next safety off the bench.
“He’s doing a great job. I wouldn’t want to put him in the two group, but I definitely want to get him a lot of reps,” Fisher continued. “This year it’s my focus to get Noa going and get him a lot of reps. Right now he’s taking a ton of reps in practice, not complaining, doing a great job on special teams as well.”
Lots of competition.
And to his credit, Fisher has put together a room that responds to it.
“I would say it’s intense every day,” Newsome said. “We just come every day trying to make each other better.”
Fisher will like that.