Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Spring Gives Hopeful Huskers a Chance to Breakthrough Loaded Defensive Backfield

March 17, 2023

There’s an excess of scholarships and a finite amount of space. Despite a few departures already through attrition, Nebraska is over its scholarship limit. No position is particularly crowded but there’s a surplus of bodies among the secondary.

Nebraska returns its two starting cornerbacks for the majority of last season. Both starting safeties are also back, albeit with Marques Buford out in the spring because of the knee injury he sustained against Wisconsin last season. Speedster Tommi Hill is back at cornerback. DeShon Singleton, Javier Morton, Phalen Sanford and Braxton Clark are also back. Add in former Florida transfer Corey Collier and spring enrollees Dwight Bootle II and Syncere Safeeullah. With several other players in the mix, seats at the dinner table are at a premium. Head coach Matt Rhule recently mentioned the realities of the situation.

“We have a lot of defensive backs,” Rhule said. “I’ve got to see what guys can do this spring, and then really figure out, ‘hey, this is the best system that can give our guys the best chance.’”

Rhule’s right-hand talent evaluator Evan Cooper coaches Nebraska’s secondary. Cornerbacks, safeties and nickels all fall under his guise. He’s previously said other assistants will work hands-on with players during practice while he cycles through which group he’s directly coaching.

A self-described film junkie, Cooper already said Quinton Newsome and Myles Farmer are NFL-caliber talents. Buford could get there and Malcolm Hartzog’s earned high praise entering his second collegiate season. Cooper carried his love for talent evaluation into looking at returning Huskers. In that film study he saw a defense that played hard.

“The secondary, we have some pretty long DBs. It’s encouraging,” Cooper said. “We are built the right way. Big, athletic guys. We’ve just got to work on a few things, work on the defense and learn the scheme. Kind of stuff. I’m excited about it. When we have good players we have a chance to be good.”

Cooper and Rhule are familiar with each other. They’ve worked together for essentially the last decade. But neither of them have coached on the same staff as Tony White before. Rhule hired White with trust to run a successful defense. The lack of familiarity, however, means the coaches have to collaborate more in the winter and spring so they can confidently coach players with a cohesive vision.

“I’m listening, learning, and when the time comes, I’ll give my two cents,” Rhule said. “To me, that’s the best thing – let us all get on the same page, and once we’re all on the same page, then we can make the tweaks we need to really take advantage of the guys we have.”

Nebraska’s defensive coordinator comes with direct secondary coaching experience. He coached cornerbacks at San Diego State for nearly a decade before a two-year stint as cornerbacks coach at Arizona State. San Diego State finished 31st or better in pass coverage grades in three of White’s final four seasons coaching corners there. In 2017, the Aztecs ranked 15th in the country by allowing just 178.7 passing yards per game. San Diego State’s secondary tallied its 100th interception under White in that season, the third-most in the country during that stretch. The Aztecs returned 14 of those for touchdowns, tying the program for the fifth-most in that span. Arizona State allowed 21 less passes of 40 yards or more than the two prior years and ranked 50 spots higher in national pass defense in White’s two seasons there.

White’s aggressive 3-3-5 philosophy brought gains for the Syracuse’s secondary. In his first season as defensive coordinator, Syracuse started five freshmen—three of which went on to be Freshmen All-Americans by various media outlets. The Orange improved to rank 19th in the country in total yards allowed, ranking 16th nationally in sacks. Last season, Syracuse finished 14th nationally in passing yards allowed (184.8).

White said he hadn’t got a chance to “feel” the defensive players when he met with local media back in January. All he knew about them in a football setting was on film. At that point the team hadn’t started winter conditioning yet. Defensive aspects like the rover position become clearer after he gets to know the players better. With a surplus of experienced players, White and Cooper could get creative with the secondary.

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