With the 2021 campaign in the books and an offseason full of recruiting and transfer portal-ing underway, it’s as good a time as any to look at where each of Nebraska’s position groups sit heading into spring ball.
We’ll be breaking down this series into nine position groups—receivers, tight ends, running backs, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, defensive backs, specialists and, of course, quarterbacks—and giving them a 1-10 score, with 1 meaning the group isn’t looking too good and 10 meaning it’s in great shape and you, the Husker fan, should be excited.
Next up are the defensive backs. We’ll be talking about the Huskers’ corners, safeties and nickels, a unique hybrid linebacker/safety position that watchers of college football have noticed is growing in popularity. Former Husker JoJo Domann owned the nickel role in Erik Chinander’s defense in 2020 and 2021, but he’s since moved on from the program and has his sights set on impressing NFL scouts at the Senior Bowl on Feb. 6.
Let’s take a look at who the defensive backs are losing, returning and adding from the 2022 recruiting class and transfer portal, if any.
Losing: OLB/nickel JoJo Domann, corner Cam Taylor-Britt, safety Deontai Williams, safety Marquel Dismuke, corner Nadab Joseph
Returning (years in the program): Quinton Newsome (4th year), Myles Farmer (4th year), Braxton Clark (5th year), Marques Buford Jr. (2nd year), safety/nickel Isaac Gifford (3rd year), safety/nickel Javin Wright (4th year), safety Noa Pola-Gates (4th year), corner Tyreke Johnson (2nd year), corner Tamon Lynum (3rd year), safety Koby Bretz (2nd year)
Incoming: safety DeShon Singleton (1st year) corner/returner Malcolm Hartzog (1st year), safety Jalil Martin (1st year), corner Jaeden Gould (1st year), corner Tommi Hill (1st year), ATH Gage Stenger (1st year)
Notable walk-ons returning: safety Phalen Sanford (4th season)
Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher has some roles to fill. His defensive back room loses three of its four starters from 2021, including Taylor-Britt, Williams and Dismuke. The good news? Two spots have returning starting experience in Newsome at corner and Farmer, who filled in well for Williams after he went down with a season-ending injury and played in every game while starting the final four.
As the new guy in the Huskers’ defensive backfield in 2021, opposing offenses tested Newsome, often times running toward his side. More than not, the Georgia native was up for the challenge and showed he was willing to be physical in run support as a 6-foot-2, 185-pound corner. Newsome racked up a career-high 57 tackles, two tackles for loss and four pass breakups. He even was sent on a corner blitz and got home for a sack against Fordham. Yes, the loss of Taylor-Britt, who recorded a team-best 11 pass breakups, hurts the Blackshirts. But Newsome was solid as a first-year starter last season—that bodes well for his growth and the 2022 defense.
Here are just a couple examples of what Newsome showed in 2021:
While Newsome is a favorite to hold down one starting corner spot, what about the other? Fisher has multiple options, and they each provide different elements.
Clark could potentially get the nod at corner. At 6-4 and 200 pounds, he’d be difficult to complete passes against because, most of the time, he’d be larger and longer than the receiver he’s covering—if he’s quick enough to hang with them on their routes. That’s not always the case with big corners. Clark played in every game in 2021, recording five tackles and two pass breakups. A season-ending injury in the 2020 fall camp slowed his development, but he should be considered for the starting role opposite Newsome.
Buford may have put himself in position to get a good look at a starting spot—either at corner or safety—thanks to his play in 2021. He made a name for himself on special teams as a true freshman, especially as a gunner on the punt coverage team:
Buford, a 5-11, 190-pounder from Texas, had just three tackles on the season, but his speed, tackling ability and willingness to play on and excel on special teams could give him an edge as Fisher tries to find the best players for the roles available. Buford, like other DBs at Nebraska, cross-trains at both corner and safety, too.
At safety opposite Farmer, there could be an interesting competition between the vet Pola-Gates and newcomer Singleton, a junior college transfer from Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College. This will be Pola-Gates’ fourth year in the program, and the former four-star recruit has yet to crack the lineup and contribute to the defense after playing behind Williams and Dismuke for multiple seasons.
Singleton, however, is coming off a junior-college campaign where he played well with 21 tackles, two interceptions and 2.5 tackles for loss. Singleton’s solid build at 6-3, 205 pounds might fit the role of a Big Ten safety better than the 6-foot, 180-pound Pola-Gates. Pola-Gates has been in Chinander’s defense longer than Singleton and knows the playbook, though. Will that pay off with playing time for the Arizona native?
After transferring from Ohio State, where he spent three seasons, Johnson arrived at Nebraska last June but played in only two games. It’ll be interesting to see where he lands in the rotation with a full offseason in the program. Lynum, another long corner at 6-2, 180 pounds, could provide depth as it’ll be his third year on campus. And what about Hill, the former four-star recruit who transferred in from Arizona State?
At nickel, it’s going to be difficult to replace Domann, who started to see massive success in his fifth and sixth years in the program. He grew into and absolutely owned the nickel position. After Domann’s final game against Ohio State, Chinander used second-year player Gifford, the former Lincoln Southeast standout, at nickel. For it being his first action at the position against the tough competition he played against—Wisconsin and Iowa—Gifford did well, and had seven tackles with one pass defended.
Gifford might hold the edge to start at nickel, but don’t count out Wright, if healthy. Wright is a dynamic athlete who has grown to 6-4 and 220 pounds, but he saw his season come to an end in September after the discovery of a second blood clot. If he’s able to play next season, Wright would absolutely be in the mix at nickel.
Down the road, the outside linebacker/safety role could fit Gage Stenger well. Stenger, the Millard South product who Nebraska flipped from Kansas State, is a stellar athlete. The Huskers aren’t sure which position the 6-2, 200-pounder is going to start his career at—he was a dynamic prep quarterback and started at safety as well—but with a season or two under his belt of development, Stenger could very well grow into the nickel role, just like Domann did.
It’s hard to look at the departures on Nebraska’s defense and see a unit that won’t take at least a small step back in 2022. The defensive line will need to replace three important pieces in Ben Stille, Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas. The defensive backfield will be losing three of the four opening-day starters from 2021, though Farmer brings stability to one of the safety positions. There’s no more Domann, who earned second-team All-America honors from the Associated Press. There are roles to fill, which leave questions. Nebraska’s defensive backs get a score of 5/10.