Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Taking Stock of Nebraska’s Secondary Post-Spring, a Group that Could be One of CFB’s Best

May 11, 2021

With spring ball now in the rear mirror, the Huskers transition to more of a loosely structured schedule for the next few months as players finish up finals and catch a few weeks rest. 

With coaching limited in the summer, many Husker players will have to take it upon themselves to keep whatever momentum they’ve gained this spring heading into fall camp. With the Huskers’ season beginning on Aug. 28, the start of fall camp is just about three months away. 

This can be a big summer for some, even a crucial period for others, and a time to recover for guys who made waves in spring. So we’re going to take stock of each position room as Nebraska exits spring, highlighting who is where, who is trending up, and any questions remaining.

Defensive Backs

Projected first-team on Aug. 28: Cam Taylor Britt (CB), Quinton Newsome (CB), Deontai Williams (S), Marquel Dismuke (S)

Nebraska had three knowns entering spring ball and one position up for grabs. 

Though, to call the top three “knowns” would imply Nebraska wasn’t quite sure what it had in the other five or so pushing for snaps, which would be misleading. 

The top three in DB coach Travis Fisher’s meeting room, the three with the most snaps played a season ago—Taylor-Britt, Williams, and Dismuke—have just a wealth of in-game knowledge banked to call on. The next five guys that would make up the fourth starter and the entire second unit are short on in-game reps but long in the tooth on potential and excitement. 

At corner there are three: Newsome, Braxton Clark, and Nadab Joseph. At safety, two: Noa Pola-Gates and Myles Farmer. Perhaps the secondary will be Nebraska’s strongest position group this fall. Perhaps it’ll also be the deepest. 

Dismuke played 534 snaps last season, Williams saw 520, and Taylor-Britt got 468, though targeting ejections and suspensions altered the last two numbers. Dismuke played about 66 snaps a game, and you have to think Taylor-Britt would have been much closer to that had he not been hit with a couple targeting penalties. Dicaprio Bootle, the one departure from the secondary, played 538. 

Which is all to say that it was the top four playing pretty much the majority of games last season. 

Clark was lost before the year because of a preseason camp injury. Farmer was building into a role and then put on the shelf by a freak pre-game injury before Purdue. Joseph, in his first few months with the program, wasn’t ready. Pola-Gates was probably in the same boat. 

You can’t fault Fisher for wanting to lean on the knowns. It worked out pretty well. Over the back half of the 2020 season, Nebraska was holding teams to just 24.5% on third down and to 6.4 yards per pass attempt.

For context, in the first half of the year, Nebraska allowed opponents to convert 34 of their 63 third-down attempts and average 8.1 yards per pass attempt. Their first half numbers extrapolated over the entire year would have ranked 126th and 100th. Their back-half numbers over a full season would have ranked first in third-down defense and 15th in pass defense.

We know we can’t realistically do that, but the point remains that over the last four games, Nebraska’s secondary was operating at one of the highest levels in all of college football.

It should feel good then that one of the secondary’s most-used talking points this spring was that the group is deeper, more talented, and fighting tooth and nail for spots. 

“Hopefully one of those second-string guys—because it’s a very talented group—is a starter,” Fisher said during the spring. “The second team, just because you’re practicing in that group, it doesn’t mean you’re staying in that group. Hopefully one of those guys becomes a starter. 

“I preach it every day in meetings, I preach it on the field. There’s no waiting around.”

Newsome took Bootle’s vacated corner position toward the midway point this spring, holding it for the open practice on April 17 and for the Spring Game on May 1.

With Clark coming off an injury and being held out of live work, you have to wonder how large the gap between he and Newsome actually is. But Newsome has it for now, a 6-foot-2 sophomore from Georgia who plays with a bunch of swagger. 

“It’s all about just being able to take the coaching, being able to take the classroom teaching to the field, and then being able to make mistakes in practice and come back and correct the mistake,” Fisher said of the third-year man.

Despite not yet having a featured role on the defense, Newsome has played in 18 of a possible 20 games over his first two seasons in Lincoln. 

“Quinton has played reps and taken reps in the game. Now he’s got to go out and take that job,” said defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. “That job is not going to be given away. Somebody’s going to have to take it.”

We’ll see how the summer goes there. 

And at safety, expect a rotation. Farmer and Pola-Gates have good chemistry, Fisher says. Farmer’s making good progress coming off his ankle injury last season, and Pola-Gates is taking a step. “Big-time jump right now,” Fisher said. “Noa is probably sitting right where Myles was at somewhere during the season last year.” 

It’s to the point where Fisher doesn’t even refer to the second unit as the No. 2s but rather his “1.5s.” Of course, all this could be spring fodder or a little bit of ego massaging to keep everyone happy as we move into the summer months. 

It probably wasn’t easy for Farmer and Pola-Gates to look at their situation last year and think “If I make progress this year, when the seniors move on, I’ll be ready,” and then have the seniors return for one more free year. It’ll make Nebraska better if there are four starting caliber safeties rotating at those two spots instead of just two guys. 

Quotable: “I plan not to come off the field. Honestly. I’m planning to play all special teams. Some offensive packages, we can throw that in there. But I don’t plan to come off the field. I plan to give everything I have to Nebraska this year. Everything.” — Cam Taylor-Britt

Stock Rising:

  • Cam Taylor-Britt (fourth-year junior): Here was a high school quarterback—and a prolific one at that—who came to Nebraska, learned to play cornerback, then learned to play safety, and as a junior was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team. “I don’t know how many corners there are in the conference or country that are better than him but I doubt there’s many, and he’ll get the chance to prove that,” said head coach Scott Frost. His stock is too expensive for us normal people to buy at this point, but best believe this is the kind of investment the big wigs would get in on because it’s still rising. Taylor-Britt has the potential to be one of the top corners in the country.
  • Noa Pola-Gates (third-year redshirt freshman): The 5-foot-11 Arizonan played in all eight games a season ago as a key member of Nebraska’s special teams unit. He’s got some tenacity to his game. Fisher made it clear this spring that fans were going to see Pola-Gates on the field with the defense this fall. Exactly where and how remains a bit of a question, but a guy who was a consensus former 4-star prospect, the 11th ranked safety in the country, and a high school All-American is quite the option to have waiting in the wings. 

Fall Outlook:

Make no bones about it, this should absolutely be one of Nebraska’s strongest groups in 2021. Will it be a no-fly zone kind of secondary? Nebraska ranked 81st in completion percentage allowed last season and 56th in explosive pass rate allowed; it could improve, but to make that much improvement isn’t something one should rely on. Rather than being a first half/second half kind of a unit like last season, it needs to be a year-long nuisance. Of course, it would help a bunch if Nebraska finally developed a dominant pass-rusher, but we’ve been saying that for years and the secondary has made gains in spite of it continuing to be a question. 

Because of Taylor-Britt’s excellence and because of the depth, could this group be one of the most feared secondaries in the conference, perhaps the country? Sure. Expect opposing offensive coordinators to steer clear of Taylor-Britt as much as possible. Which makes the development at the other corner spot that much more interesting. Whoever it ends up being might be in line for a good amount of attention. 

From our “Taking Stock” series so far:

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