Pernell: 2019 Recruiting Class Position Spotlight: Defensive Back

Categories: Football Recruiting
After Scott Frost’s first season in Lincoln, we learned a few things. First and foremost being that this upcoming season and for the foreseeable future, the Huskers are going to have one of the best offenses in the country. The other thing we know is that the defense needs work, and it starts on the recruiting trail. This staff hasn’t been shy about their need to upgrade the overall size, length, and athleticism on defense. The 2019 class is a nice step in that direction. Nebraska ultimately signed the top prospect on their board at all three levels on defense with Ty Robinson (DL), Nick Henrich (LB) and Noa Pola-Gates (DB).

Pola-Gates had been a top target for Scott Frost and company since they arrived in Lincoln from Central Florida. He was one of the first 20 players Nebraska offered in the 2019 class back on January 17, 2018. Two weeks earlier, the defensive back made waves after participating in the prestigious All-American National Combine. Pola-Gates was named first-team All-Camp after running the fastest 40 of the day (4.41) while overall testing as good as anyone in attendance. He also excelled during one-on-one drills. When Frost offered, Pola-Gates had offers from Arizona, Arizona State and Memphis. The Gilbert (AZ) Williams Field standout soon collected offers from multiple programs in each Power Five conference.

Frost made Pola-Gates a priority and took an active role in his recruitment, along with Travis Fisher and Erik Chinander. The 5-foot-11, 170-pounder was on campus when the Huskers got their first win of the season October 20 against Minnesota. He didn’t have high expectations when he came on that visit, he had been considered a heavy Alabama lean at that point. That weekend his cousin, Keana Pola, was on her own official visit as a Husker softball recruit. Pola-Gates had his eyes opened in a big way during the visit. Not only was he intrigued by having family on campus with him, but he hit it off with Husker players and fell in love with the culture being built by Frost and the coaches. He left Lincoln with Nebraska making a big move in his recruitment.

The momentum continued as the contact period began at the end of November. Frost closed strong and essentially sealed the deal when he and several of his assistants went in-home with Pola-Gates in early December. Pola-Gates chose the Huskers over USC and Arizona State, while also strongly considering Alabama (where he was a silent commit for a time) and Penn State. He inked with the Huskers during the first signing period, but didn’t announce his commitment to Nebraska until January 19 during the Polynesian Bowl in Hawaii. It was his second high school all-star game after playing for the West squad in the All-American Bowl two weeks prior.

Adding Pola-Gates to this class was big. The plan is to start him out at safety, but he has the versatility to play everywhere in the secondary. He has the athleticism, footwork, change of direction, acceleration and hips to play corner, while displaying the physicality, instincts, sure-tackling and football IQ to thrive as a safety as well. I’ll be interested to see where he ultimately ends up. Elite cornerbacks are extremely valuable and the team has a bigger need there than at safety. Pola-Gates’ competitiveness and ball skills make him a natural corner. But he might be at his best as a free safety where he can use his speed and attacking mentality to cover a lot of ground and erase mistakes. On film, he looks like a heat-seeking missile coming up in run support from his centerfield position. Frankly, it’s reminiscent of his uncle Troy Polamalu. He could play either zone or man, regardless of where he is at in the secondary. Wherever he ends up at Nebraska, his overall skillset makes him an outstanding candidate to play the nickel in sub-packages. His ability to cover and hold up against the run is valuable.

Pola-Gates is a consensus four-star recruit who is ranked No. 116 nationally by Rivals, No. 134 by 247 Sports and No. 260 by ESPN. He was ranked the No. 3 player in the state of Arizona and considered the No. 15 cornerback prospect by the 247 Sports Composite rankings, while Rivals listed him as the nation’s No. 11 safety. After earning honorable-mention all-state accolades as a junior, Pola-Gates was named first-team All-Arizona by USA Today following a senior season that saw him finish with 57 tackles, one tackle for loss, five interceptions, seven pass breakups, one kick return touchdown and a blocked kick. He also saw action on the offensive side of the ball, where he had 743 all-purpose yards, including three receptions for 200 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 139 yards on 15 carries.

I can’t see Pola-Gates redshirting. I anticipate him being heavily involved in special teams and finding a way onto the field on defense. I think his role will increase as the season goes on and he gets more comfortable with the scheme and adjusts to the speed of the Big Ten.

Another member of this secondary class with positional flexibility is Suwanee (GA) native Quinton Newsome. The 6-foot-2, 180-pounder has played both cornerback and safety during his time at North Gwinnett High School. The staff thinks he could play either spot in Lincoln, but he’ll likely start at corner and see if he can stick there. Newsome has the sort of size, length, and speed this staff covets from its defensive backs. He’s adept at playing both man and zone coverages, but with his physicality, he has the potential to be a very good press-man cornerback. Newsome isn’t afraid to come up and support against the run, either. He tackles with good form, and he takes good angles to the ball in space. On film, Newsome does a good job of turning his head towards the ball to make a play on it, and he times his jumps well and really competes on 50/50 balls. He breaks really well and has good ball skills.

Newsome is a guy that Travis Fisher and Sean Beckton identified and targeted early in the 2019 cycle, offering him on March 28. They got him to take an unofficial visit to Lincoln with his parents during the July 28 weekend and gained his commitment on August 6. Newsome chose Nebraska over fellow finalists Georgia and Auburn, and also held offers from Alabama, Penn State, Tennessee, Oregon, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Stanford, West Virginia and over a dozen others. Despite his commitment, Newsome continued to receive attention throughout the fall, particularly from teams in the Southeast. But he never wavered.

As a junior, Newsome helped lead North Gwinnett to a Class 7A state championship, Georgia’s largest class. His play as a senior earned him first-team all-region recognition. Newsome is a four-star prospect according to ESPN, who ranks him among the top 30 cornerback prospects nationally. While Rivals lists him among the top 35 safety prospects in this class.

It’s nice to add a legacy recruit to your program. It’s even nicer when that player is initially offered with the staff not knowing he’s a legacy. That reportedly was the case with Javin Wright, son of Toby Wright (’92-’93), one of the best safeties in Husker history. The Chandler (AZ) native received his offer from the staff on May 4 and came to Lincoln on September 8 for the game against Colorado. Wright had a final four of Nebraska, UCLA, Washington and Arizona State, but ultimately chose the Huskers over the Bruins on Halloween, October 31.

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Wright is a big, physical, rangy and versatile defender who could project to several positions. He spent his sophomore and junior years playing cornerback and moved to free safety this past season. Unfortunately, his senior year was cut short after four games when he suffered a dislocated knee and a MCL injury that required surgery. Wright will begin his career at corner, his preferred position, but it remains to be seen if he stays there long-term. He’d benefit from playing press, where he could use his physicality and long arms. Wright would struggle in a system that had him give a free release. He has a pretty fluid back pedal, but he doesn’t have the sort of change of direction to consistently handle quicker receivers. Wright does have outstanding ball skills and also excels in zone coverages, where he displays the ability to break on the ball and cover a lot of ground. He’s also been tutored his whole life by his dad, a former 2nd round pick who played six years in the NFL. Wright has a high football IQ.

The way he’s physically maturing, I don’t know if he’ll have the movement skills necessary to play on an island. Personally, I think he’s a safety and possibly even an outside linebacker down the road after a couple years with Zach Duval and Dave Ellis. If he can settle into a position that fits his developing frame, Wright could have a pretty high ceiling. Maybe it is at corner, we’ll see.

The Hamilton High School standout may have gotten a bit overlooked this past year because of his injury-shortened season. Wright was expected to have a breakout senior campaign. At The Nike Opening Regional in Los Angeles this past March, Wright posted an impressive 107.94 SPARQ score. At the event, he ran a 4.59 in the 40-yard dash, posted 4.37 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle and recorded a 38.6-inch vertical jump. He also had performed well at camps and 7-on-7 tournaments during the spring and summer. Wright was ranked among the top 15 prospects in the state of Arizona and top 75 cornerbacks in the nation in the 247 Sports Composite rankings.

You see a common theme with the defensive backs Travis Fisher signed: versatility. Atlanta (GA) Westlake High School standout Myles Farmer definitely fits that label. The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder is a long, athletic, physical, rangy defender who could add muscle and grow into an outside linebacker down the road. Farmer is a thumper who seems to love contact. He’ll come up and hit you. He’s really good in run support, whether it’s as the eighth man in the box, or coming down 12-yards from his safety spot.

He has excellent ball skills, a byproduct of playing wide receiver his first two years. Farmer became a two-way player as a junior when he added cornerback duties. This past season, he played primarily safety. Farmer could be used in a hybrid role much the same way JoJo Domann was in the second half of last season. He can play close to the line of scrimmage and be used to blitz, cover tight ends, spy the quarterback, all while supporting the run. Even staying at safety, he could play linebacker in some nickel packages. Farmer’s size and cover skills make him a nice chess piece the Husker coaches can eventually move all over the back eight. There are so many options with him because of his frame, athleticism and overall skillset.

Farmer was a longtime target. Scott Frost originally offered him in May of 2017 while still at Central Florida, and then reoffered February 1, 2018 as the Husker head coach. Farmer had over 20 offers from schools including Oregon, Virginia Tech, Ole Miss, West Virginia, Louisville, N.C. State, Missouri, Minnesota and Syracuse. He was named to the all-region first team as a senior after earning second-team honors following his junior season. Farmer was ranked among the top 55 safeties nationally by Rivals and 247 Sports. He took his official visit to Lincoln to see the Huskers take on Michigan State November 17. Despite starting to receive heavy interest from several of the top programs in the Southeast region, Farmer committed to Nebraska during his visit weekend and never wavered.

Grade: B+

 

Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all-football website N2FL.com. From 2002-2014, he served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on talent evaluation, which included NCAA recruiting and the NFL Draft. He has analyzed and covered the NCAA and NFL for 25-years. You can email him at jgpernell@comcast.net.