As Nebraska’s football program continues its transition to the post-spring portion of its offseason, it’s a good time to look at what the Huskers have at each of their position groups, though the transfer portal will always make things fluid this time of year.
Last January, prior to the team’s 15 spring practices, we scored each position group. Knowing what we know now, we’re going back and re-scoring them.
Here are the positions we’ve already re-scored: Receivers | Offensive Line | Running Backs | Tight Ends | Quarterbacks
Up next is the first defensive position group in this re-scoring series, and it’s the one with the most to replace: defensive back. The original score from back in January was a 5.
Travis Fisher’s room needs to replace three starters in the back end, including corner Cam-Taylor-Britt and safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke. That number rises to four if you count JoJo Domann, who starred at nickel linebacker.
All of those players are taking the next step in their careers. Taylor-Britt was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round of last weekend’s NFL Draft. Here’s a list of all the Huskers who signed undrafted free agent deals.
While there’s plenty to replace in the DB room, the cupboard isn’t bare. The Huskers return starting corner Quinton Newsome. Myles Farmer is also back after starting the final four games at safety for an injured Williams. Both of them had the best seasons of their careers—Newsome had 57 tackles and four pass breakups while Farmer had 30 tackles and one interception.
During a recent appearance on ‘Sports Nightly’ head coach Scott Frost said it’s time for Newsome and Farmer to step into leadership roles that were left unfilled following the departures of Taylor-Britt and Williams.
“The biggest thing for me is those two have to take over back there,” Frost said of Newsome and Farmer. “They’ve both been really good players for us, but we lost Deontai, Cam Taylor-Britt—it’s those guys’ show now. I think, if possible, the talent is maybe improved overall from the secondary from last year, but the leadership is gone, and we need those guys to step up and help some of the new guys and young guys be consistent and reliable back there.”
Frost touched on an important note about Nebraska’s defensive backs—there was an influx of talent to the room during the offseason. Fisher wasn’t afraid to bring in new faces to overtake or push the perceived starters. A whopping eight defensive backs were signed in the 2022 class, and some of them will fight for a starting or rotation spot.
While Fisher is adamant that no one’s starting job is safe, Newsome’s might be. He showed really good things as a first-time starter last season. As the new guy in the secondary, offenses tested him in the run and pass game, and the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder from Georgia responded well. He had a career-high 10 tackles against No. 6 Ohio State.
“Quinton is starting to turn into a pro,” Fisher said. “When it comes to how he gets lined up, he’s always in his stance, you’re not going to catch him standing up. You’re always going to catch him knowing exactly what he’s doing. He’s going to be vocal, he’s going to be talking. I could move Quinton to safety tomorrow at the spring game and never put him at corner again and you would not know that he never played safety. He’s beginning to be that guy.”
If Newsome has one corner spot held down for now, who has the other? There seems to be two candidates for it; one is a veteran in the program while the other is a newcomer: Braxton Clark and Tommi Hill.
Making judgements from spring games is never a good idea. So whether it means anything or not, Clark was the one who started opposite Newsome during the Red-White Game. It appears to be a now-or-never situation for Clark, who is entering his fifth season on campus. Clark brings excellent length to the defensive backfield at 6-4 and 200 pounds. He made one start in 2019, but suffered a setback with a season-ending injury in fall camp in 2020.
Hill is a second-year player who spent his true freshman season at Arizona State. He has solid size for the position at 6 feet, 205 pounds and is very athletic as he’s in contention with Trey Palmer to be the team’s punt returner as well. Hill played in 11 games last season and racked up nine tackles in what was mostly backup duty.
“He’s been a bright spot,” Frost said of Hill during the spring. “He’s got a lot to learn yet and consistency. But there’s really no doubt of his playmaking ability. I love the energy and passion he brings to the game as well.”
Hill has confidence, which is necessary for playing his position. He showed it during his first appearance in front of local media during the spring. The biggest adjustment for him, he said, was learning the playbook. Everything else was accounted for.
“Athletically, I’m already there. Nothing to talk about with that,” Hill said.
Nebraska also added transfer corner Omar Brown, who was the FCS Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2019 at Northern Iowa. Brown collected 140 tackles, 13 pass breakups and eight interceptions during his three seasons in Cedar Falls, but he was limited this spring with an injury. Tyreke Johnson, Tamon Lynum and junior-college addition Javier Morton could be the ones competing for backup roles.
Now let’s head to safety, where Farmer might have a leg up on his competition due to his experience in the system. The top candidate to play next to him could be Marques Buford Jr., who may have had the best spring of anyone in the program.
Fisher had high praise for the 5-11, 190-pound Buford.
“That was my hidden gem for a while right there with him,” Fisher said. “This kid, he’s going to surprise a lot of people because I got him at the safety position. You look at him and say he’s a corner. No, he can play any position in the secondary. I got him at safety right now just because with his size, you wouldn’t think a guy like that would be so physical.
“He ain’t scared of nobody. He’s fearless.”
Buford cross-trained at corner and safety last year. But this year he’s working solely at safety, and started next to Farmer in the spring game. Buford put himself in position to start in just his second season at Nebraska because of how he went about his first. He was a special teams ace and made a name for himself as a gunner on the punt team.
The Texas native collected three tackles on the season and did his job in high-profile games against Oklahoma and Michigan:
But there’s competition to be had at safety. Noa Pola-Gates, a former four-star recruit, is entering his fourth year at Nebraska and has largely been used as a special teams player. The 6-foot, 180-pounder has an opportunity in front of him to push for a starting role.
So does an intriguing junior-college addition in DeShon Singleton, who has what Pola-Gates doesn’t—Big Ten size. Singleton, who transferred in from Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College, is 6-3 and 205 pounds. What Fisher really likes about Singleton is how he moves at that size.
“He’s big, and I can’t coach that. He can run, and I can’t coach that either,” Fisher said. “But the best thing about him is he’s smart, and he’s very coachable. He’s humble. He’s humble like a freshman who wants to play real bad.”
Chinander has been upfront about possibly not having another Domann on the roster. There could be, but it’s too early to tell. Domann provided linebacker size—6 feet, 230 pounds—and run-stopping ability, but could also hold his own in pass coverage against slot receivers and tight ends. Players like that don’t grow on trees.
However, there are options to fill Domann’s role, though they may not be asked to do everything Domann did.
The three primary contenders are Isaac Gifford, Javin Wright and Chris Kolarevic. Wright’s status is up in the air as he continues to work past a health scare last year that involved blood clots. He wasn’t a full participant in spring ball.
“He has a medical issue that we don’t always see and we’re working really hard to get him cleared so he can be back,” Frost said of Wright on ‘Sports Nightly’. “He’s doing everything he can with the football team minus contact right now, and we have our fingers crossed that very soon he’ll get cleared to be back full go.”
That leaves Gifford and Kolarevic.
Gifford replaced Domann last year when Domann’s season ended early after the Ohio State game with a hand injury. Gifford is smaller than Domann at 6-1, 205 pounds and has a background as a safety. He could be used as an option on passing downs.
If defensive coordinator Erik Chinander wants a bigger, run-stopping look, Kolarevic would get his number called. The 6-1, 230-pound former transfer from Northern Iowa racked up 27 tackles last year in backup inside linebacker duty.
Although the Huskers’ defensive back room lost leadership and three starters, Fisher brought in intriguing prospects to help fill the holes. The added competition can only mean good things for the group.
But there are still unknowns. Newsome will need to prove he’s capable of stepping into Taylor-Britt’s No. 1 corner role. Clark or Hill need to emerge and win a job. Farmer will need to prove he can hold off the new additions, and Buford could be a first-time starter.
Not much has changed since we looked at this group in January. The defensive backs’ score is still a 5.