Following the conclusion of Nebraska football’s spring practice season, The Daily Nebraskan is breaking down each position group and evaluating which players might make an impact in 2019. This is the eighth of nine installments.
Nebraska’s defense has gone through many coaching changes since joining the Big Ten and the secondary has been one of the positions hit hardest. There were four different defensive back coaches in the last four seasons at Nebraska, but the trend stopped with current coach Travis Fisher.
Fisher came with Scott Frost from UCF and became the first secondary coach to stay multiple seasons since Charlton Warren in 2015. His constant presence will help Nebraska’s secondary, but the safety position is still an area of concern following the departure of three senior safeties.
Last season, the top three safeties for Nebraska were all seniors. Safeties Tre Neal, Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams combined for 112 solo tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles last season. The three also remained healthy as they all played over 10 games in 2018.
The departure of Neal, Reed and Williams is a significant loss for Nebraska off the field, as they were the leaders of the defense. Neal was a UCF graduate transfer while Williams and Reed were both four-year players at Nebraska.
Whoever steps into the two safety spots have big shoes to fill, but two players showed flashes of brilliance with limited playing time last season.
Junior JoJo Domann plays a hybrid role in the Nebraska defense. Domann played both linebacker and in the secondary last season. The spring game is telling that he will stay as a hybrid player as he lined up at linebacker and safety. Domann’s diverse set of skills and experience as a safety and linebacker allow him to play almost anywhere on the field.
Another safety expected to play immediately is junior Deontai Williams. Williams played the most snaps at safety among those currently rostered last season and had 15 solo tackles along with two interceptions, which tied Reed for most on the team, as well as two forced fumbles. In addition, Williams’ veteran status will help with newcomers to the position.
Domann plays a hybrid position, which means that he will not always be playing safety so there remains other safeties that will have to fill in for him. Junior Marquel Dismuke and senior Avery Anderson are other veteran safeties that help bring the secondary necessary experience. Dismuke and Anderson did not play much last season, but their experience may give them an advantage when it comes to playing time.
These four safeties will not be the only ones playing as new freshmen are coming in that could start right away. Freshmen Myles Farmer, Quinton Newsome and Noa Pola-Gates are all highly-touted recruits that play safety. These three, if able to adapt to the college game quickly, can provide safety depth and potentially start as freshman.
Unlike the safeties, the Huskers return the majority of their cornerbacks this season.
Lamar Jackson’s junior season was one of redemption for himself. After being benched against Purdue, Jackson stepped up and eventually returned to the starting lineup. In his starting role, he intercepted Dwayne Haskins and was more physical as he had 16 solo tackles following the Purdue game.
Jackson’s emergence created a cornerback tandem with Dicaprio Bootle by the end of the season. The duo, along with the rest of the defense gave up 31.2 points per game last season, which was five points lower than 2017’s defense and held Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins to 252 passing yards, nearly 100 yards under his 2018 season average.
Bootle had a phenomenal sophomore season alongside Jackson, leading the Big Ten with 15 pass deflections and was more physical than Jackson with 26 solo tackles.
The two return as a cornerback duo where both could become lockdown cornerbacks for Nebraska. The two helped jump-start Nebraska’s season turnaround and have the proven skills to help in both rush and pass defense for Nebraska.
The Huskers also gain depth at the cornerback spot with senior Eric Lee Jr. returning along with some younger players. Sophomores Cam Taylor and Ethan Cox help round out a deep cornerback spot for Nebraska and create one of the deeper positions groups on the team.
Nebraska’s secondary turned its play around last season, but the two positions are on opposite ends in terms of returning player production. This will require both its veterans and newcomers to improve in Fisher’s second year at the helm.