Scoring the Huskers: Defensive Backs
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Scoring the Huskers: Defensive Backs

December 13, 2018

Last week, I scored the Huskers’ offense by position group. This week, it’s time for the defense. Each group will be getting a score on a 10-point scale, based off 2018 performance, returning production and incoming talent.

Roster Reset:  Offense | Defense | Special Teams

Scores: Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers | Tight Ends | Offensive Line | Defensive Line | Linebackers

Next up for the Blackshirts, we’re looking at the. . .

Defensive Backs

Returning corners: senior Lamar Jackson, senior Eric Lee Jr.,  senior Jeramiah Stovall, junior Dicaprio Bootle, junior Tony Butler, sophomore Cam Taylor, sophomore Ethan Cox, redshirt freshman Braxton Clark, redshirt freshman Moses Bryant

Incoming corners: freshman Myles Farmer, freshman Javin Wright

Returning safeties: senior Avery Anderson, senior Reid Karel, junior Deontai Williams, junior JoJo Domann, junior Marquel Dismuke, junior Eli Sullivan, sophomore Bradley Bunner, sophomore Lane McCallum, sophomore Corbin Ruth, redshirt freshman CJ Smith, redshirt freshman Cam Jones, redshirt freshman Isaiah Stalbird, redshirt freshman Corbin Frederick

Incoming safeties: freshman Quinton Newsome, freshman Cam Kleinschmidt, freshman Luke Reimer

Returning production: 47.9 percent of tackles, 60 percent of havoc plays, 27 of 52 defensive back starts last year (several “starts” were in subpackages so more than four defensive backs were on the field for the first play)

2018 Stats GP Tackles Havoc Plays* PBU INT
Aaron Williams 12 70 8 4 1
Tre Neal 12 57 10 5 1
Antonio Reed 12 44 10 3 2
Dicaprio Bootle 12 39 16 15
Lamar Jackson 12 28 11 7 2
Deontai Williams 12 23 7 2 2
JoJo Domann 8 19 5 2
Eric Lee Jr. 9 13
Cam Taylor 11 12 3 3
Marquel Dismuke 8 10
Jeramiah Stovall 8 8
Ethan Cox 11 3
Eli Sullivan 7 1
Braxton Clark 4 1

* Havoc plays are a combination of a player’s tackles for loss, passes defensed and forced fumbles

Inside Kinnick Stadium, after a 31-28 season-ending loss to Iowa, a departing safety had a message for the guys he was leaving behind. Tre Neal, a guy who knew the Huskers’ secondary for 127 days and knew it would be looking quite a bit different soon, looked at the rest of the defensive backs and told them they’d be the backbone of the defense once he was gone.

“Look, y’all are going to be the best group on the team,” he told them. “Going into the season, we were the group that had the doubts, we were the group that was the most inexperienced, we were the group that you didn’t know what you were going to get from us. Yeah, we’re losing some safeties but you’ve got Deontai [Williams], JoJo [Domann], Marquel [Dismuke]. They’ve made plays.

“You guys are going to be the team. That’s who we’re going to lean on, that’s going to be the group.”

I tend to agree with him. 

Assuming Lamar Jackson remains with the Huskers and doesn’t enter the NFL Draft, Nebraska will have two cover corners as experienced as any in the Big Ten. Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle opposite him will be entering their fourth and third seasons as starters, respectively.

That you can say that about Jackson still is a testament to what he did this season.

When it came to public perception, the corner from Cali was the punching bag of 2017’s defense. That unit was viewed as soft, undisciplined and afraid of contact. Those were all projected onto Jackson. He missed tackles, seemingly quit on plays and committed silly penalties. 

A lot of that stuff was still present early on in 2018, despite a defensive coaching staff unafraid to publicly poke and prod at Jackson. Then he got benched against Purdue, entered the Wisconsin and Northwestern weeks as a co-No. 2 corner on the depth chart and the prevailing thought was he would soon be gone. But Jackson worked his way back, earned his starting job back and began looking like the corner Travis Fisher and Erik Chinander thought he could be. 

Jackson has ideal size for an NFL corner, it’s why the NFL has been a topic of discussion since he converted to corner. He’s 6-foot-3 with long arms and pretty good lateral movement. The thing that seemed to be holding him back was mental. After the benching, Jackson started aggressively attacking the football. He got the first two picks of his career, doubled up on his career pass deflections in one season and looked more like the shutdown corner Nebraska needs.

Which worked out well because it already had one of those guys on the other side of the field.

Dicaprio Bootle was an All-Big Ten corner for the Huskers in 2018. His 15 pass breakups were good for eighth nationally and the second-most by a Nebraska defender in a single season in school history. When opposing quarterbacks threw at Bootle, it usually didn’t work out well.

Now, Bootle’s next step this offseason will need to be working on his timing to turn some of those deflections into interceptions, but that shouldn’t take away from how good he was in 2018. 

And behind those two, Nebraska has a pair of young corners in Cam Taylor and Braxton Clark.

Taylor was one of the hottest topics of fall camp and a pretty impressive looking freshman. He’s a converted high school quarterback, so expecting him to have a bigger role in his first season was wishful thinking on my part, but he seems on track to becoming a bigger part of the secondary with another offseason to learn the defense. Ditto for Clark, who redshirted his first year but drew plenty of praise from position coach Travis Fisher.

As it stands, Nebraska hasn’t lost a corner this offseason, and given the depth concerns entering into last offseason, that’s good. There’s still time for someone like Lee to grad transfer, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. 

Instead, the biggest issue facing the secondary right now is figuring out how to replace basically the entire safety rotation. Nebraska is losing Neal, Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed.

Neal was the quarterback of the defense, helping smooth the transition from 2017’s sit-back-and-wait style to 2018’s seek-and-destroy approach and helping get guys lined up properly. Williams was just a steady, heady safety that had been around for forever and knew what he was doing. Save for the Northwestern game, Williams wasn’t a worry in the secondary. And Reed had this playmaking ability off the bench that was sorely needed. He could turn a game on its head in an instant. He showed it against Michigan State.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Huskers replace them, but the pieces might be there.

Deontai Williams, as Neal has said, has All-American potential and graded out as one of the best defenders for PFF his first season in Lincoln. Williams was another playmaker. Maybe all his game needs to elevate to another level is opportunity, something he’ll have in abundance his junior year. Truth be told, I love Williams’ game. He’s a ballhawk on the field and someone who invites contact. My 2018 bold prediction was Mo Barry would turn into one of the Huskers’ best players, my 2019 take is probably going to be about Williams doing the same.

Head coach Scott Frost has said on several occasions that CJ Smith was growing into something his true freshman season before a leg injury cost him the year. The other intriguing freshman, Cam Jones, lost his whole season because of an upper-body injury. No one really knows what either of those guys can do yet.

JoJo Domann is the most interesting man in the room. What do you make of his “move” to outside linebacker? It wasn’t so much a move as a positional tweak to get him on the field. He was in a hybrid role and maybe his future is at outside linebacker, we’ll probably find out through spring ball. But my take on the situation was somewhat different.

Domann is a baller and a guy the coaching staff simply wanted on the field. Given the three seniors entrenched at the top of the depth chart at safety, snaps were limited there, so testing him out at linebacker was the next option. He certainly showed he could play there, but with all three of those safeties gone and Nebraska looking for two new starters, it wouldn’t surprise me if Domann played more base safety than he does nickel linebacker. 

That skillset that made him interesting at linebacker makes him interesting at safety, too. And if he stays healthy through the offseason, he’s got as good a shot as any to earn one of those starting safety spots. 

This is a defense that relies on production and playmaking from its backend. Linebackers and safeties led most defensive categories at Central Florida and in the Huskers’ first year in Chinander’s scheme, linebackers and defensive backs were: each of the top six tacklers, each of the top six turnover-creators, four of the top six TFL-getters and three of the top six sack-getters.

The faces will be changing for half of the secondary, but unlike other rooms, the guys moving into new roles are guys that come with very few question marks. Injuries could make things pretty dicey in terms of experienced depth, but we've gotten all the way through this post without mentioning Marquel Dismuke. This group isn't lacking for intrigue.

Score: 7/10

Justification: The lack of an established star caps the current score, but this is looking like a group with a high ceiling. We went from serious worry to confidence in less than a year's time. Fisher has done really well.

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