Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Scoring the 2021 Huskers: Defensive Backs

January 28, 2021

For two years running now, we’ve done this series in the months immediately following the end of the season. It’s back. We’re scoring Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now, before spring ball, relative to the various other groups. Each day will bring about a different room, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers on the scores: 2020 play, returning production, and incoming talent.

Already covered: Wideouts | Tight Ends | Running Backs | Offensive Line | Quarterbacks

With the offense taken care of, let’s move focus on some positives for a bit. Blackshirt time. Up first. . . 

Defensive Backs

Returning: Tamon Lynum (2y FR), Isaac Gifford (2Y FR), Myles Farmer (3Y FR), Noa Pola-Gates (3Y FR), Javin Wright (3Y FR), Quinton Newsome (3Y SO), Braxton Clark (4y SO), Nadab Joseph (4Y SO), Cam Taylor-Britt (4Y JR), Deontai Williams (6y SR), Marquel Dismuke (6Y SR)

Incoming: Malik Williams (FR), Koby Bretz (FR), Marques Buford Jr. (FR)

Returning production: 86.0% of tackles (153/178), 83.3% of takeaways (5/6), 81.7% of havoc plays (29/35.5), 76.5% of defensive snaps

 SnapsTacklesTFLsPBUsINTsFF (FR)
Dicaprio Bootle538250.551-
Marquel Dismuke534474.03--
Deontai Williams520514.04-1 (1)
Cam Taylor-Britt468283.042-
Quinton Newsome14711---1
Myles Farmer 898--21
Noa Pola-Gates73----
Tamon Lynum7-----
Ronald Delancy III 6-----
Isaac Gifford24----
Nadab Joseph01----

*Italicized names represent players who won’t return in 2021
**Snaps shown are defense only and don’t reflect special teams participation

There’s a reason folks keep hearing about other programs trying to poach Husker defensive backs coach Travis Fisher. One could make the argument there hasn’t been a better-performing coach on all of Nebraska’s staff than Fisher. 

Identification, recruitment, development, deployment, and lately something that’s becoming as big a deal as anything—retention—Fisher has struck every note beautifully in his three years in Lincoln. 

His hit rate on the trail is high (and he’s in the hunt for another high-profile guy). His ability to work with guys he inherited has been admirable, something frankly others need to take note of. He’s found every which way to add talent. 

Go into Georgia and pull away a highly-rated, physically mature safety? Myles Farmer says check.

Go into a talent hotbed and find a diamond in the rough? Cam Taylor-Britt, a high school quarterback from Alabama, says check. 

Go into your backyard and utilize a creative lever to add talent when you’ve quickly run out of space? Isaac Gifford says check. 

Go into your locker room on day one and help an up-and-down corner develop into an NFL starter? Lamar Jackson says check from all the way out in East Rutherford. 

Fisher’s resume is growing. He’s the type of coach who won’t stick as a defensive back coach for too terribly long. Nebraska will be happy to keep him as long as it can, and it’ll surely enjoy his efforts in the meantime. 

His room plays fundamental football—for the most part. (Guys gotta stop lowering the helmet. I don’t like the rule either, but it’s a trend with the Husker DBs.) His room flies to the football. His room has largely undergone a cultural makeover to become a grit-and-grind bunch. It’s remarkable really. 

During the 2020 season, Nebraska’s secondary entered with many expecting it to be the unquestioned strength of the team. They were leaky at times, stout at others. As the year progressed, Nebraska became excellent on third down. Throughout the year, Nebraska was stout in the red zone. 

The rest of the defense in front of them was unexpectedly strong, so the onus wasn’t squarely on the secondary the way some may have thought pre-2020. Teams couldn’t run over the Husker front seven last season as has been the case in the past, and Nebraska parlayed more early-down success into more advantageous situations later. 

After a breakout 2018 campaign, teams stopped testing Dicaprio Bootle in coverage. He’d get targeted with balls over the top, but not picked on like he did in 2017 and early 2018. Bootle’s numbers were modest, but when corners develop “don’t throw at me” reputations, your opportunity tends to diminish. 

Two seasons ago, that resulted in more of a chance for Jackson to excel. Which he did. This past season, with Jackson moved on to the NFL, Taylor-Britt (6-foot) slid into a full-time corner role and flourished. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander thought opposing offenses were avoiding him. Where are you to go with the ball? Remember Nebraska absolutely locking up Jahan Dotson?

Taylor-Britt’s ascension was a big deal.

“He has a lot of room to (grow). He has a very high ceiling,” Fisher said last December of the Second Team All-Big Ten selection. “In my opinion, I think Cam is one of the top corners definitely in the Big Ten. If not the top corner in the Big Ten. … Right now, Cam is playing very good on the outside. He’s very physical on the outside, great ball skills on the outside. Great teammate. Contributing on special teams, huge part of special teams. The future is very bright for Cam.”

With Bootle opting not to use his free year of eligibility and head to the NFL, the expectation was Nebraska would dip into the transfer market to add a proven corner if Taylor-Britt followed him to the Draft (he could have). Taylor-Britt sticking around for his fourth season meant Nebraska could lean on the electric playmaker on and off the field instead. 

With four pass break-ups, three TFLs, and two picks, Taylor-Britt was a disruptive force on the field. He’s got a nose for the football and an uncanny ability to make plays even when his man looks like he has a step.

Nebraska cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt #5 knocks away a pass intended for wide receiver Jahan Dotson #5 of the Penn State Nittany Lions, November 14, 2020, at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln Nebraska. Photo by Eric Francis.

In short: this dude is a star trending up. 

Add to his ascension the return of a pair of veteran safeties with something to prove and Nebraska’s secondary has the potential to be one of the conference’s best units in 2021.

Deontai Williams (6-1) was the kind of playmaking safety many thought he could be in 2020. He was Nebraska’s third-leading tackler behind a pair of linebackers. He got to the quarterback against Penn State for a strip sack/scoop and score that proved the difference in a 30-23 win. (The secondary slammed the door on a comeback attempt late in the fourth quarter of that game as well.) 

Marquel Dismuke (6-2) could be a dark horse captain candidate. 

There’s just not a whole lot bad you can say about this safety duo. There will be downs when seeking out big plays, but that’s the “no fear of failure” motto in action. You want that. They have their fair share of ups

And truth be told one of them might not even have a full-time starting job in 2021! That’s how well Fisher has recruited to this room. 

Farmer seemed the next man up until a pregame leg injury ended his season before Purdue on Dec. 5. Nebraska loves the young man. A 6-foot-2 safety, had two picks and a forced fumble in about a game and a half worth of snaps in 2020. If fully healthy, he could push for a starting job. 

If he’s limited in spring ball—with the late start, it seems he has a chance at least at partial participation—the door is open for the 5-foot-11 former high school All-American Noa Pola-Gates. 

Pola-Gates is a wildcard in the secondary competition. A guy who can swing between both positions if needed, he might be in the most advantageous spot. The Arizona native dealt with his own injury issues during his first year on campus, not really getting back to 100% until the summer of 2020. With Farmer possibly limited and corner Braxton Clark (6-4) working his way back from a preseason injury that cost him the year, there’s going to be some opportunity. 

Nebraska needs to fill Bootle’s spot. 

Nadab Joseph (6-2) and Tamon Lynum (6-2) are there, though they rarely played in 2020. 

Quinton Newsome (6-2) was the stand-in for Taylor-Britt when a pair of targeting ejections caused him to miss time. He’ll be the guy with first crack at the opposite corner job. But, we know by now that Fisher loves to cross-train his defensive backs. Maybe a guy like Pola-Gates or even Gifford (6-1) can make a move in the void. 

We’ll see. Nebraska will once again have a deep room. Snap counts in 2020 paint a picture of a heavily relied upon top four, and one could conjure up a handful of different combinations of what that top four will look like in 2021. 

Guys who can’t crack the two-deep will likely have a substantial role on special teams—Newsome burned his redshirt in 2019 for 10 games of work primarily on special teams—and Nebraska could be the better for it. What role could Marques Buford Jr. (6-0) create for himself by early-enrolling? Could Javin Wright (6-3) make a move in his third year?

Fisher’s prize for high-level performance? The best kind of headache for the next few months: how to manage the snaps?

Those who see the room every day know it’s talented. As losses mount on the offensive side of the ball, Nebraska could be relying on its defense even more in 2021, and the secondary will need to make good on all the talent it has.

The Huskers were slightly above average at defending the pass (51st nationally in yards per attempt) and slightly below average at forcing misses (81st in opposing QB completion rate). NU was decent at limiting chunk plays through the air but played a good deal of off coverage throughout the year and still got burned for a few (89 yards to David Bell against Purdue comes to mind). 

It’s a good group already, with talent that will hopefully drive competition at all four spots. There’s the potential for it to be a great group. 

Score: 8/10

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