Photo Credit: Ohio State Athletics

Will Nebraska’s Confidence in Young DBs Pay Off Against Northwestern?

November 04, 2020

Did Deontai Williams take his head out of the hit? Erik Chinander thought so. Did Williams “hit in the strike zone” that Nebraska teaches? Chinander thought so. Did Williams launch? Chinander thought no. “But they called it,” Nebraska’s defensive coordinator said Wednesday in talking with reporters via Zoom, and that was that.

Williams, a senior starter at safety, was ejected in the second half against Ohio State on a targeting call. Nebraska didn’t agree with the call, but it has accepted the ramifications of something it knows it can’t change, one of which mandates Williams serve a first-half suspension for the Northwestern game.

Chinander said he’d like to talk with Big Ten officials to get a better understanding of how his Blackshirts are supposed to hit. “Just see how they want us to correct it,” he said. “I’m not questioning their call, I just want to get it corrected and make every play safely and appropriately.”

Might we start seeing defenders going low for hits with increasing frequency? Even that carries with it risk of injury. Nebraska’s game against Ohio State showed that reality, too. So what’s a defender to do?

That’s a problem for another day. As is trying to understand the targeting rule. Nebraska has a more pressing situation to worry about: who’s going to play in place of Williams? At the same time, who’s going to play in place of Cam Taylor-Britt, a junior starter at corner who was also DQ’d in the second half of the Ohio State game?

“I’ve got a lot of confidence in the guys we’re going to play week-to-week,” said defensive backs coach Travis Fisher.

That’s good, Nebraska is poised to rely on some younger, inexperienced defensive backs for a first half against one of the upstart surprises of the Big Ten in Northwestern (2-0).

Northwestern has thrown just 48 times in two games, compared to 113 run calls, so it’s not like Nebraska will be throwing Quinton Newsome or Myles Farmer or Noa Pola-Gates to the fire against a Mike Leach-style Air Raid system. But, it helped that those three in particular saw more run against Ohio State—perhaps the best aerial attack in the conference—two Saturdays ago.

“We knew going into the game they had deep threats on the outside. The guys wanted to play top-down on the routes and compete and challenge on the routes,” Fisher said of the strategy against the Buckeyes.

Nebraska was torched by quarterback Justin Fields and wideouts like Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Fields missed one throw. Wilson had a 42-yard catch. Olave had a 29-yard catch.

On that last one, Newsome, a sophomore cornerback, forced a fumble that Nebraska recovered. Those guys showed signs.

“All of the guys, when it’s their turn to play, whether it’s somewhere during the game, whether it’s the next game or whatever it may be, they’re starters,” Fisher said. “We just keep rolling. Whoever’s in the game are starters in my eyes.”

Fisher said anytime he can get young guys into the game it’s a bonus for him. There’s no substitute for game reps.

He thought Farmer, a redshirt sophomore safety, played well too.

The younger players on the team know that reps on a Saturday are born out of reps on a Tuesday.

“Those guys are doing well in practice,” said senior corner Dicaprio Bootle. “They’re stepping up, coming in eager to learn and eager to practice. They know that they’re going to be depended on, so we just have to continue to stay with those guys and get them right and get them ready.”

When Nebraska was without Williams last season, it tried Bootle at safety. The corner rotation is already a little thin with the loss of Braxton Clark to injury, so don’t expect Bootle to slide back again.

With Newsome at corner, and true freshmen corners Tamon Lynum and Ronald Delancy III behind him, Nebraska feels like it has enough there to get by in Taylor-Britt’s absence.

The two first-year players played on special teams against the Buckeyes. Fisher said he’s “look(ing) forward” to them doing the same against Northwestern.

“Maturing a whole lot,” he said. “Those two are doing a great job of coming to practice with the right mentality, and they’re catching the older guys’ eyes by the way they’re practicing.”

Bootle agreed.

“They see things that I don’t see sometimes. That’s kind of like the characteristic of a strong room, when everybody can contribute and everyone has something to put forth, even the guys that don’t play,” he said. “Whoever it is that goes in the game at whatever point we trust them.”

Remember, too, Nebraska has Nadab Joseph—a 6-foot-2 sophomore who was the top-rated junior college corner—waiting in the wings.

He’s out here every day and he’s working hard to get himself where he needs to be,” Fisher said. “Obviously he’s a late addition for us, but he’s working hard to get himself where he needs to be. He’s coming along pretty good.”

Back at safety, Nebraska has similar optimism.

It starts with Farmer.

“He can be physical at the line of scrimmage, he can be a physical tackler, he’s physical on re-routes on the perimeter, in the post he can cover a lot of ground as well, and I feel pretty good about him in man coverage,” Chinander said. “He’s what we were looking for when we recruited those guys, so I think he’s gonna come out and have a really good football game.

“He’s practiced the right way all throughout this whole fall camp knowing his shot is one play away and he’s ready to take it.”

Farmer is leading a group of young safeties that is pushing two seniors in the room—Williams and Marquel Dismuke. Farmer (6-foot-3, 205) has excellent length. Pola-Gates, a redshirt freshman, is much smaller at 5-foot-11 and 180, but he seems to be right there in the mix.

“I think the gap they’ve bridged, so to speak, is because they’re catching up in knowledge of the game, knowledge of the system with some of the other guys in the room,” Chinander said of the pair. “You could always tell when they first got here. Those guys are super athletic, they’re all physical. Myles is a really long kid. Noa is as twitchy a guy on the football team. Just knowing what to be and being able to have the coaches trust them that they’re gonna be able to do the job snap in and snap out.”

They’ll be guaranteed a half on Saturday against Northwestern. Williams and Taylor-Britt won’t be available until after the halftime break. Whatever else they get from that point on will be up to them.

A chance to shoot your shot, so to speak. It’d certainly help Nebraska if they hit the strike zone.

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