Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Putting The Secondary First: Evan Cooper’s Task of Revitalizing Nebraska’s Pass Defense

December 24, 2022

Once nationally known for its relentless, punishing defense, Nebraska appeared far from its Blackshirt lineage throughout last season.

The Huskers finished No. 79 in the country by allowing an average of 414.4 yards per game. The boneyard front seven allowed 4.5 yards per carry and the secondary conceded 225.3 yards with a combined 59.6% completion clip. Opponents scored touchdowns on 30.4% of drives (91st in the country), allowed at least one first down on 74.4% of drives (97th in the country) and just 9.6% of opposing drives ended in turnovers (94th in the country).

Of course, it’s worth noting the coaching change. Former head coach Scott Frost was fired after Nebraska’s loss to Georgia Southern, when the Eagles put up 45 points on 642 total yards. Interim head coach Mickey Joseph dismissed Erik Chinander after the Huskers allowed 580 yards to Oklahoma the following week. The defense improved under Bill Busch but still allowed at least 115 rushing yards in all but one game, and allowed 391 passing yards against Purdue.

New defensive coordinator Tony White aims to right the ship with his creative defense. In the back end of that defense is new secondary coach Evan Cooper, who spoke a little bit to Jessica Coody for a short Early National Signing Day interview. During that talk he described himself as a “film junkie,” and touched on how his high-energy approach carries over into coaching.

“That’s what I like to do, whether I work with you or work for you or coach you,” Cooper said. “That’s just one of my things. I just feel like I need to know people on a different level than strictly work or player-coach.”

Cooper is a Rhule acolyte. He played at Temple when Rhule was an assistant coach and worked with him for 10 consecutive seasons at three different jobs (Temple, Baylor, Carolina) before becoming one of Rhule’s first hires at Nebraska.

He spoke about the four defensive backs brought in and their strengths. Philadelphia safety Rahmir Stewart got Cooper’s interest early and is an infections player. Dwight Bootle II is a fast, competitive addition with a high IQ. Syncere Safeeullah, with his size, might play corner, but could drop to safety if needed. He also has only four years of football experience so Cooper’s excited about his potential. Then there’s former Florida transfer Corey Collier Jr., who brings speed and a nose for the ball.

Nebraska would benefit from a play-making ability in the secondary. The Huskers had just nine interceptions last year, three of them from freshman Malcolm Hartzog, who didn’t start until the Indiana game. Marques Buford, Myles Farmer and Luke Reimer also intercepted passes last season and have eligibility remaining. Reimer is a linebacker and Farmer and Buford are both safeties. Buford is also coming off a knee injury suffered against Wisconsin. Then there are role players like DeShon Singleton and Phalen Sanford, who could see increased snaps in White’s defense.

Cooper said he didn’t want to put immediate expectations on the incoming players. He wants to bring in the new group of recruits, put them on the field and see how they adapt.

This is an interesting role for Cooper. The self-described film junkie also played a front-office role with the Carolina Panthers in talent evaluation. It’s a trait that runs deep with him and could help spot Nebraska’s best secondary lineup.

“I kind of always have evaluated players, since I was young enough to watch film and it’s a passion for me, as well as coaching,” Cooper said. “It’s been fun for me to see the other side of it. To see what goes into becoming an NFL player, what goes into the evaluations for the college students so it gives me a unique perspective.

“I’ve seen what it looks like now so I will hold the DBs and anybody who I coach as well, the guys I recruit, to a certain standard, because I’ve seen it.”

Cooper thought the staff’s NFL experience might set it apart from the rest of the Big Ten. And as typically old-school Big Ten programs like Wisconsin shift offensive philosophies under new head coach Luke Fickell, that experience facing pass-reliant offenses becomes more valuable.

Teams ran 907 plays against Nebraska last season. Nearly 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns later, the secondary changes to not only adapt, but to prosper.

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