This was a series we ran last December and it seemed to be pretty well-received. So we decided to bring it back. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, we’re going to score Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now.
Each day will bring about a different position group, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers in these scorings: 2019 play, returning production, and incoming talent.
Up next. . .
Returning: Noa Pola-Gates (rFR), Myles Farmer (rFR), Javin Wright (rFR), Braxton Clark (SO), Quinton Newsome (SO), Cam Taylor-Britt (JR), Dicaprio Bootle (SR), Deontai Williams (SR), Marquel Dismuke (SR)
Returning Production: 66.3% of defensive back tackles (173/261), 50.0% of defensive back passes defended (18/36), 72.9% of defensive back starts (35/48)
|PBUs||INTs||Tackles||TFLs + FFs|
|Eric Lee Jr.||1||2||20||–|
The fan poll here saw the defensive backs score an average of 7.7.
Back to our pal, Kris: “Even after losing Lamar, I think this group will play with the swagger that Coach Fish wants.”
I, again, agree with Kris.
And this group still seemingly remaining a strength isn’t so much about what Nebraska lost, because it lost a vital player in Lamar Jackson, but about who it still has.
Defensive backs coach Travis Fisher has a case for being one of the best defensive back developers and recruiters in the conference. When he starts putting guys in the NFL at a high rate—Lamar Jackson figures to be the first, and I don’t think he’ll be the last—we should be able to expand that conversation to a national scope.
Because what Fisher did with Jackson in two seasons is remarkable. The California native came to Nebraska after playing high school on the other side of the ball and right away talked about the NFL. He played as a freshman and then started as a sophomore but the numbers never came close to backing up what his measurables suggested he could be as a cornerback.
Then Fisher came and pressed every single button he possibly could correctly. Fisher pushed Jackson and pushed Jackson and pushed Jackson; maybe publicly Jackson was the one Fisher was the hardest on. And yet Jackson never folded, even after a mid-year benching in 2018.
It culminated with a senior season in which Jackson finished tied for 14th nationally in passes defended (15) and led all Big Ten players in the category. That’s including future top-10 NFL Draft pick Jeff Okudah; Jackson had more passes broken up and an equal number of interceptions.
Nebraska legitimately had a pair of lockdown defenders, because teams absolutely did not want to throw the football at Dicaprio Bootle. No one had more pass breakups in 2018 than Bootle. (Two different players from the same team leading the conference in pass breakups in back-to-back years is a pretty remarkable nugget.)
Bootle has one more season of eligibility. He dabbled in safety in 2019—another Fisher move; because he likes to cross-train everyone in the spring and summer, an injury at a particular spot won’t sink the ship—but should be able to settle back at corner as a senior. Behind him, Nebraska will have a senior Marquel Dismuke, who finished third on the team in tackles last year from his safety position and played hurt for a good chunk of the back half of the year, and a senior Deontai Williams.
Williams’ 2018 season was a preview of what was expected to come. The Florida native wasn’t on the field much, playing behind three senior safeties at the time, but when he was he was making plays left and right. I thought Williams was destined for a leap in 2019, and then a shoulder injury ended his season after two quarters of football.
Nebraska missed him all year long. He should be getting another year of eligibility back.
His return to health gives Fisher a wonderful problem to have. Cam Taylor-Britt played safety and he played corner and he even started a game at outside linebacker. Fisher loves the junior-to-be’s versatility, but Nebraska feels his best spot is at corner. If Williams and Dismuke are both healthy, Fisher has options for Jackson’s replacement.
Or, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander can get creative with where he puts Taylor-Britt in his defense.
Braxton Clark, a redshirt sophomore, is a name to know here. A 6-foot-4 corner with long arms and a physical nature, Clark was part of Scott Frost’s first recruiting class in 2018 and he’s been slowly worked into action. His freshman season was spent learning the ropes of this defense and learning how to play at this level from guys like Jackson and Bootle. It shouldn’t be understated the Huskers elected to move Bootle back to safety late in the year, because it meant of all the options at either spot, Clark getting experience at corner was a priority.
In his lone start against Purdue, Clark recorded his first career tackle for loss. Then, against Maryland, he recorded his first fumble recovery. He showed some tenacity on the edge that many were waiting for so long from Jackson.
If it’s not Clark, it’ll likely be Taylor-Britt. Of all the DBs on that table, no one made more splash plays. As long as he’s healthy, Taylor-Britt will be on the field.
And after that initial group, Fisher has a collection of first- and second-year freshmen to mix and match wherever he wants. Myles Farmer and Noa Pola-Gates at safety have a year of experience and weight training. Farmer might be close. Quinton Newsome played in 10 games as a freshman corner and special teams participant (though he didn’t record a single tackle) and any time a freshman burns their redshirt with this coaching staff going forward, it’ll be noteworthy.
Of the newcomers, Jaiden Francois, Tamon Lynum and Henry Gray all early-enrolled. Francois was a major early signing day win, Gray should already be on everyone’s radar and Lynum is an intriguing under-the-radar guy. If even one of them pushes for playing time, it would forecast an incredibly stacked room heading into the new year.
In other words, this room of defensive backs could be the strength of the defense in 2020.
Yes, they’ll need help from the front seven because no secondary can be great with a quarterback afforded the time necessary to pick them apart, but try and find a weakness in any of the potential lineups Fisher can throw out there on Day 1.
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.