If there is a clear strength for Nebraska football entering head coach Scott Frost’s fourth season, it’s the defense.
The Huskers had modest national ranks — 50th for total defense and 64th for scoring defense last season — but that certainly tops their 101st-ranked scoring offense. Additionally, the Blackshirts return nearly all of their starters.
Questions about the defense are more centered on how good the unit could be rather than who will win positional battles. The outfit could be Nebraska’s best defense since the 2016 group, which ranked in the top 25 in total defense in the Huskers’ last winning season.
One category in which the defense could stand to improve is generating turnovers. The Huskers were tied for 80th, and second-to-last in the Big Ten with five interceptions through their eight games.
They were also tied for 108th and last in the Big Ten in fumble recoveries with two, both contributing factors to the team’s ghastly ranking of 123rd in turnover margin, worse than all but four teams.
“I definitely want to see more takeaways,” defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said in a press conference Monday. “We've got some guys who can play the football when it's in the air. It's a huge point of emphasis this spring, being able to play the deeper passes and being able to take those chances on the football and come down with those plays.”
The position group that appears most entrenched is the defensive line. Headlined by senior Ben Stille, the tip of the spear has all three starters returning along with several key backups. Beyond that, there are a couple holes to fill, the most prominent being in Fisher’s group.
Sophomore Quinton Newsome looks to be the leader for the vacant cornerback spot left by the graduated All-Big Ten honorable mention Dicaprio Bootle.
“Right now, Quinton Newsome is doing a very good job at that spot,” Fisher said. “A lot of guys are doing a good job, but Quinton Newsome is doing a great job at that spot.”
His main competition for the spot may come in the form of sophomore Braxton Clark. The six-foot-four Florida native was a backup in 2019 and was in competition to be the third cornerback until he suffered a shoulder injury that kept him out for all of the 2020 season. The coaches are now bringing him in slowly.
“I'm hoping things pick up with Braxton a lot more than it's been right now,” Fisher said. “He's starting to pick up, having a little bit of a late jump in the spring. I've kept him out of all the live periods right now because I don't want any setbacks, but I do see some great things out of him.”
Among other players who were limited last year due to injury is redshirt freshman linebacker Nick Henrich. The Omaha native was a four-star recruit out of Burke High School and was limited to just two games last season after a shoulder surgery caused him to miss extensive time.
Henrich is part of a deep inside linebacker group that will be filled with competition. He will split playing time with senior Will Honas and sophomore Luke Reimer, both returning starters, and Chris Kolarevic, a graduate transfer from Northern Iowa.
Kolarevic in particular is someone who has drawn a reasonable amount of attention and praise from coaches and teammates after having measurable success at the FCS level.
Henrich described the UNI transfer as a “freak of nature.” Kolarevic has been someone who has been able to serve as a leader despite being in his first year of the program and still learning the defense.
“I think the expectation was that I could come in and help the younger guys out because there’s a lot of them,” Kolarevic said.
Both he and Henrich are capable of playing both the inside and outside linebacker spots, giving them more opportunity for playing time in a loaded linebacker group. Both of the starting outside linebackers also return in sophomore Garrett Nelson and senior JoJo Domann.
Henrich knows that Domann’s decision to return could impact his playing time, but he said he is hungry to contribute and happy to have the leader back.
“That’s my brother,” Henrich said. “Another year of playing with him, that meant the world to me….The competition's been great. And that's great because I mean spring ball is the time for competition, so everyone's pushing each other and everyone's getting better.”
The safety group remains in good hands with seniors Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams choosing to return. Redshirt freshmen Myles Farmer, who had two interceptions last year, and Noa Pola-Gates, a highly-touted recruit who has seen minimal action outside of special teams, are both more of 1.5’s than second-stringers right now, according to Fisher.
But the most important player on the defensive side of the ball will likely be junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who spurned the NFL Draft for another season in the Big Ten, where he was second-team all-conference last year.
Taylor-Britt plans to be on the field as much as he can; defense, special teams and even offense if the opportunity arises. Coaches have even remarked that he can throw the ball, being a quarterback in high school.
“He can sling it all over the park, but I'm more focused on Cam being a cornerback,” Fisher said. “He played the quarterback position in high school, he never played DB. [I’m] training him how to be a DB, situations, when to do certain things, when not to do certain things. He's got a long ways to go and still has a bright future. He's having a great spring.”
Even the defensive coaches couldn’t refrain from talking about the supposedly improved and more explosive offense. Fisher cited freshman running back Jaquez Yant, a walk-on from Fisher’s same Florida high school, as someone who has been giving the defense problems at around 250 pounds with speed.
The 6-foot-4 junior Omar Manning, who was the talk of the Huskers’ open scrimmage last Saturday and was one of the top junior college transfers in the nation last year, has also been giving the defense a challenge, according to the coaching staff.
“Guys like Omar, every single play is a problem,” Fisher said. “But my guys getting the chance to practice against someone like that every day gets them ready to play in the big games.”