The Huskers have seemed to always have lock-down defensive backs. Through the90s to the end of the 2000s, the Blackshirts fielded future NFL players year in and year out in the secondary. The number has continuously dwindled, and now Nebraska’s corners and safeties are usually camp tryouts and preseason bodies at best.
The product they put on the field in college shows why.
Nebraska’s passing defense has been a sieve for quite some time. They have the athletes, they just have not had the coaching. Here’s hoping Travis Fisher can get it out of them.
In actuality, safety is far less of a dance than other positions. The group lost their best member in Josh Kalu, but they still retain two seniors.
Aaron Williams is a gamer both on and off the field. He’s been a regular since his sophomore season and is a very intelligent player. He was a bright spot on defense a season ago until the injury bug struck. He will be a leader to the younger guys coming in, but most importantly, he will be able to help the defense make its transition under the new staff.
The other senior, Antonio Reed, is not as locked into a starting role due to heavy competition behind him, but he has valuable in-game experience. He is a hard-hitting enforcer, which compliments well to Williams’ more coverage, back-end focus. Unfortunately, going in for the big hit can cause Reed to take bad angles or miss plays because he’s not focused on the play.
Behind him, he’s getting pushed by sophomore Marquel Dismuke. Dismuke put together a solid freshman season a year ago and he has come to play this spring. He’s been impressive throughout the practices and capped it off with a good spring game. Dismuke should easily be the third safety to see playing time.
The only reason that Deontai Williams won’t be the third safety is because he may also spend time at nickel. The JUCO addition has been a bright spot all spring after he enrolled early. He can play at both corner and safety and should see the field immediately. Safety, however, is where he played most this spring, so expect him to wind up there as part of the rotation and sliding to nickel occasionally.
Two more four-star freshmen additions will come by fall, both of which could contribute immediately. Cam’ron Jones, from Texas, is a big-time defender already (what do you expect, he’s from Texas). He will also be able to contribute in the return game, as his athleticism and explosiveness is mature for a freshman. His new teammate, C.J. Smith, brother of new Saints receiver Tre’Quan Smith, has familiarity with the staff and will also push for playing time.
The wild card here is JoJo Domann. Mike Riley was enamored with the Colorado sophomore, as he was having a fantastic spring. Unfortunately, a torn ACL took away a season where he very well could have been a starting safety (or at least a major part of the rotation). Even worse, Domann has suffered a setback in his recovery and didn’t participate in spring ball. A recovery timetable is unknown at this point. Hopefully he will be cleared by fall and can contribute.
The Other Lamar Jackson
Things must be tough for Lamar Jackson. No, not that one, the Huskers cornerback. He has to share a name with a Heisman winner and future star QB for the Ravens (yeah, I said it). The Huskers’ Jackson has other things to live up to, however. His four-star, top-of-the class safety ranking in 2016 made us all think he was going to be a star.
Unfortunately, he followed a tough freshman season with an almost more disappointing sophomore season. Whether we blame Bob Diaco (probably) for that or not, you have to hope that a 6-foot-3 athletic corner can find a way to get more physical in coverage, otherwise we might be seeing a big bust right in front of us. I don’t think it happens. Jackson will figure it out.
In a Corner
Eric Lee, Jr. and Avery Anderson were both big-time recruits from Colorado, but neither has gotten off to a great start for their career. Lee was a starter at corner a season ago, but he struggled like all the other corners, although there were some promising moments. Anderson is nowhere to be seen. He has been nearly non-existent on the field and I don’t know if anyone knows what position to put him at. Hopefully, coach Fisher will be able to figure out the missing link with these two.
DiCaprio Bootle, on the other hand, is a riser. He’s got blazing speed for a defensive back, which is something we know that this staff wants. He came out of nowhere to become a starting Blackshirt a season ago. He, too, struggled, but I see him improving this season and becoming a solid corner.
Cam Taylor and Braxton Clark are both coming over the summer. The depth chart at cornerback is razor thin, so these two freshmen do have a chance to contribute right away. Cornerback is a tricky position to jump straight into in college, but Taylor is a freak athlete from Alabama and Clark is a good-sized cover corner, so it may be necessary.
Finally, I’m going to give you three names you might not know that I think could make a leap up the depth chart and play: Tony Butler (who did play last year), Jeremiah Stovall (ditto Butler) and Ethan Cox. The last guy, Cox, got the start in the spring game opposite Jackson when Bootle was a last-minute scratch. He also had a good spring, by all accounts. Plus, he didn’t get burned in the spring game like Jackson did.
The depth chart at defensive back is so razor thin that the Huskers would be wise to survey the grad transfer market for a cornerback. Lucky for them, Nick Watkins is looking to leave Notre Dame and just might have the Huskers on his radar.
Other defensive backs on the roster: Corbin Frederick, Reid Karel and Isaiah Stalbird
Next Week: We finish up the series with the most important third of the game: special teams!