Under normal circumstances, nearly half of Nebraska’s starting defense would have moved on after last year. Myles Farmer, Noa Pola-Gates, Casey Rogers, Braxton Clark, Isaac Gifford and others were all posted to battle for key roles this season.
Then Deontai Williams, Marquel Dismuke, JoJo Domann, Will Honas and Ben Stille all opted to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility created by the COVID-19 pandemic response and Cam Taylor-Britt decided to push off the NFL for another year.
Honas suffered a season-ending injury in the spring, which opened the door for both Nick Henrich and Luke Reimer to start at inside linebacker anyway, but what looked to be a very young defense became an incredibly experienced one in the span of a couple weeks. However, that doesn’t change how the coaches or those super seniors view the players who are waiting their turn.
“Without getting our guys returning, any number of those guys could start,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “Braxton could start, Noa, Myles could be a starter, shoot, Marques Buford is playing really, really well right now. You’ve got a lot of guys in there that have quote-unquote experience, whether it be on special teams or getting some reps in some of these games that are very valuable to us, not only taking some plays off of the older guys, but also kind of developing them for their turn.”
Between rotations, blowout situations and special teams, many of those players that might be starting otherwise have gotten chances to see the field this season.
One of the young guys that have really stood out is freshman cornerback Marques Buford Jr. He’s one of just two true freshmen (Teddy Prochazka being the other) who has played in more than four games so far this season.
“Obviously coming off the injury, we didn’t get to see him much until the beginning of camp,” Chinander said. “He’s shown in practice what he can do at corner and in some limited game reps, but then I think he’s really separated himself special teams-wise right now. He made some unbelievable plays last week against Michigan. He’s shown the speed, he’s shown the confidence, he’ shown the physical ability to make a tackle in space, he’s shown us that he can cover in practice. He’s done a really good job and he’s a very intelligent young man.”
Buford has only played roughly 20 snaps on defense, but he’s become a key contributor on special teams. Against Michigan on Saturday, Buford made a great tackle on space on punt coverage, dropping returner A.J. Henning for a loss of 5.
“He’s a dog,” fellow corner Quinton Newsome said. “He’s going to do what you need him to do. He’s a great guy on special teams and he’s a young corner. He really just soaks up everything that we’ve been telling him, everything that he’s getting coached on. He’s becoming a better player really quickly.”
Williams, in a separate interview, used the same exact phrase to describe the young corner, and couldn’t even wait until the question was finished to give his answer.
“He’s a dog,” Williams said. “He’s going to be a guy that you have to pay attention to next year. I feel like next year he’s going to get some opportunity to at least jump off the porch and get his name out there more and stuff like that. I think next year is going to be a great year for him because he’s learning from guys like Cam Taylor, guys like me as well. He’s going to be ready to go.”
Both safeties, Williams and Dismuke, and nickel Domann will all be gone next year, and Taylor-Britt will almost assuredly forgo his super senior season. That leaves at least four key roles in the back eight that will be up for grabs. Williams sees the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Buford factoring into that discussion next year.
“I think next year Coach Fish is going to try to use him as a versatile guy — play nickel, corner and safety,” Williams said. “That’s just how much knowledge he has of the game. I feel like he could really make a statement next year.”
This defense will still belong to the super seniors the rest of this season, but in the mean time their successors are putting in the work to get ready for next year, and the upperclassmen are excited about the future of the Blackshirts.
“I feel like when it’s the super seniors’ time to move on, Nebraska’s still going to be one of the top defenses in college football because of the depth we have,” Williams said.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.