Pernell: Previewing the Secondary
Nebraska led the Big Ten with 58 pass breakups (41 by DBs), almost tripling the number of passes deflected in 2017 (28), and ranked 34th nationally in pass efficiency defense – a 61-spot jump from 2017 (95th). The Huskers were also sixth in the conference (33rd nationally) in completion percentage against at 56 percent. A dramatic improvement from 2017 when they allowed 64.5 percent. The defense also ranked 32nd in passer rating allowed and 35th nationally in yards-per-passing attempt allowed (6.7), an improvement from 66th the season before (7.3).
The Huskers did give up 237.8 passing yards a game, which ranked 77th, but that’s offset by the fact they only allowed 15 touchdown passes all year. However, the team only managed 11 interceptions (8 by DBs) on the season. In order for this secondary to take the next step towards becoming a truly formidable unit, they need to start creating more turnovers, which is a hallmark of Erik Chinander’s system.
The offense Nebraska runs is not conducive to a defense being ranked inside the top 20 in a lot of categories. That’s just the way it is. The Blackshirts need to create turnovers, be solid in the red zone and force field goals as much as possible. Scott Frost has said their ultimate goal is to keep opponents under 21 points. With the offense Frost is building, most games that should be enough. Last season, 21 ppg would have put them in the 23-31 range nationally. Last year they gave up 31.3 ppg, which was 89th. Obviously that needs to improve along with forcing more turnovers.
There seems to be a pretty direct correlation here with Chinander’s defense between creating turnovers and winning football games. The statistical proof is there and the results speak for themselves. In two years at UCF, in 16 games with at least two takeaways, the Knights went 14-2 with a scoring margin of plus-20.1. In 10 games with fewer than two, the Knights went 5-5 with a scoring margin of plus-4.5. In 2018, Nebraska was 3-3 when creating multiple turnovers and 1-5 when it didn’t.
The secondary seems poised to do their part to flip these numbers in the right direction. Scott Frost has stated several times he thinks the defensive backs have made the biggest transformation of any position group on Nebraska’s roster. It wasn’t exactly the most coachable group at this time a year ago. Both he and Travis Fisher had made several comments indicating the culture in the room was pretty bad when they arrived. That was mostly a byproduct of the culture Mike Riley allowed to set in, but consider that defensive back group had players who were recruited by Charlton Warren, and had been coached by Mark Banker, Brian Stewart, Donté Williams, Bob Elliott and Scott Booker prior to Fisher getting ahold of them. Much like the defensive line, the secondary could really benefit from having thesame leader of that group for multiple seasons.
I like the environment Fisher is building. “It’s going to be very competitive,” Fisher said when he first arrived. “I want it to be very competitive. I’m going to make it be very competitive. Some guys aren’t going to like me because of it, but it’s going to be very competitive in the room and that’s what makes that secondary room a great secondary room.” The group as a whole have gotten better about taking criticism and building from it, rather than complaining or wilting from it. When Fisher met with his defensive backs at the start of spring, he opened the meeting by telling them no one had a job locked up. “There are absolutely no starters,” he told them. “I made that comment today. Let’s start the meeting off that way, let’s learn, let’s get better, let’s compete and let’s figure it out.” Fisher thinks that competitive attitude and approach is starting to take hold. The secondary has taken steps, it’s way past where it used to be, but there’s still growth that needs to be made.
Nebraska will head into the season with arguably the Big Ten’s best cornerback tandem. Dicaprio Bootle was a guy that Mike Riley found at a Miami satellite camp after running a 4.34 40-yard dash. He’s impressed every position coach that has worked with him ever since – Brian Stewart, Donté Williams and now Travis Fisher. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Bootle nearly played as a true freshman, but the previous staff decided to redshirt him because of depth at corner. He then played in all 12 games in 2017, primarily at cornerback, but actually earned his first career start at safety against Ohio State. This past season, Bootle really came into his own. He started all 12 games and posted a career-high 39 tackles. He also registered 15 pass breakups on the season, tying for the second-most in Husker history, and most since Fabian Washington also had 15 in 2004. That mark tied for the Big Ten lead and ranked ninth nationally. His average of 1.3 passes defended also ranked 16th in the country. Bootle proved to be indispensable for the Blackshirts. In 2018, he played more defensive snaps than any Big Ten defender, playing 884 of Nebraska’s 924 total snaps (96%). Remarkable. For his efforts, Bootle was named a third-team All-Big Ten selection, becoming the first Husker defensive back to be honored by the conference since Nate Gerry in 2015. He was also named the Defensive Back of the Year by the Husker coaches.
Fisher loves to cross-train his guys and despite the fact Bootle is a proven commodity at corner, he has spent plenty of practice time getting looks at nickel corner and even some at safety. The junior has played in 24 career games with 13 starts under his belt, but still hasn’t recorded an interception. Of the 76 players to get their hands on at least 10 passes last season, only 13 of them (17%) went without an interception. That’s not the sort of company you want to be included in. Bootle is still ascending. There’s another level for him to reach.
Few players recently have arrived on campus at Nebraska with the expectations that accompanied Lamar Jackson. Considered the prize of Mike Riley’s 2016 recruiting class, Jackson was a consensus four-star recruit and regarded as the No. 1 safety in the country by Rivals. Jackson admits he showed up expecting to immediately standout like he had in high school. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Jackson had shown flashes during his first two seasons while working as one of the Huskers’ top cornerbacks, but hadn’t come anywhere close to living up to the hype that accompanied him to Lincoln. He had zero interceptions in 25 career games (13 starts) at that point, and had a reputation for shying away from contact. When Frost got to Nebraska, Jackson had a questionable attitude with a suspect work-ethic. Travis Fisher saw his limitless potential – and arrogance – and immediately challenged him both privately and publicly.
Jackson opened 2018 as a starter but got benched after talking trash to the Purdue sideline and drawing a flag. He spent the rest of the game sitting alone at the end of the bench with his helmet on, pouting. The following week he was replaced by Eric Lee in the starting lineup against Wisconsin. Jackson admits he contemplated transferring, just like Tyjon Lindsey and Greg Bell had done when they grew unhappy with their roles on the team. Instead, Jackson went to Scott Frost and Erik Chinander and asked what he needed to do. “We expect you to be a pro,” the coaches told him. “Act like a pro.” Frost and Chinander told Jackson the benching and the adversity was what he needed to go through and grow from in order to become the player they knew he could be. They were blunt with him. He wasn’t cutting it. His attitude, the penalties, he needed to get his you-know-what together. After the meeting, Jackson and Frost hugged and exchanged “I love yous.”
To his credit, after that meeting, Jackson did change. He had finally bought in completely and was going to do whatever was asked of him. Husker coaches took notice. “He’s growing, he’s learning, he’s understanding,” Fisher said after his benching. “He’s understanding that things are not going to be easy and things are going to be tough and nothing is going to be given to him.” After splitting time with Lee against the Badgers, Jackson earned his starting spot back the following week against Northwestern, a game in which he scored as high as any corner in the country for that week according to Pro Football Focus grades. The following Monday, after the Huskers picked up their first win of the season against Minnesota, Jackson received a Blackshirt. He spent the rest of the season playing the best football of his career.
Jackson finished 2018 appearing in all 12 games with 11 starts, registering 28 tackles, a career-high seven pass breakups and his first two career interceptions while also forcing the first fumble of his career. Jackson’s undergone a complete 180 and is now looked at as one of the team leaders on defense. Now a senior, the Huskers need him to be the lockdown guy that he was brought in to be. If Jackson continues where he left off the last half of 2018 and continues to develop as a player, he has NFL potential.
Last season Nebraska struggled in coverage at times from the nickel spots. Teams that utilized spread concepts hurt the Huskers more often than not from the inside position. If the secondary is going to take the next step, it might have Cam Taylor to thank.The 6-foot, 215-pound Alabama native has drawn praise for his athleticism, confidence and football IQ since he arrived on campus last season. The sophomore has been lauded by coaches and teammates for his leadership as well, despite still being an underclassman. Taylor earned the No. 3 corner job as a true freshman last year and established himself as one of the young building blocks on defense. He ended up appearing in 10 games, starring on special teams and playing in nickel and dime situations, making 12 tackles (eight on defense, four on special teams), three pass breakups, and recovering a fumble against Troy.
The fact Taylor was able to make an immediate impact is even more impressive considering he played quarterback in high school and started learning how to play defensive back when he arrived in Lincoln last summer. Coaches absolutely love his upside. His versatility has served him well this offseason with Fisher cross-training him all over the defense. Erik Chinander said he could play every position in the secondary and even the ‘Cinco’ hybrid outside linebacker/safety role that JoJo Domann plays. “Cam is very physical. I have problems with knowing where to place Cam,” Fisher said during camp. “He can be a safety, an elite one, and he can be the same thing at corner, which is a good problem.” Fisher thinks Taylor can start at either cornerback or safety. He’s currently listed as co-No. 1 on the depth chart with Lamar Jackson. Between nickel and dime packages, Cam Taylor is going to play a lot this year. The staff could get really creative with how and where they use him.
Taylor isn’t the only member of the 2018 DB class who has impressed Fisher. Braxton Clark enjoyed a strong fall camp last season as well, leading the team in interceptions during practices. He came out of summer listed as the No. 2 corner behind Lamar Jackson. Coaches decided to limit him to four games (Michigan, Minnesota, Bethune-Cookman, Iowa) and preserve his redshirt. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Clark was a hot name coming out of spring but ended up being slowed by a hamstring that cost him stretches of summer camp. Fisher likes hisphysicality and potential to thrive in Chinander’s press-scheme. If healthy, he’ll fight for snaps at a growingly competitive cornerback position.
Clark will have to hold off true freshman Quinton Newsome, who has come in and drawn tons of praise this summer. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Suwanee (GA) native is the blueprint of what Travis Fisher looks for on the recruiting trail. He 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. Newsome played both cornerback and safety during his time at North Gwinnett High School and is capable of playing both for the Huskers. But it was his junior (cornerback) film that Fisher first saw and fell in love with and that’s the spot he’ll begin his career. Rated a four-star recruit by ESPN, Newsomespent most of his first camp at Nebraska playing with the 2’s and even saw some time with the first team. He’s listed co-No. 2 with Clark behind Dicaprio Bootle.
It’s not very often that a team graduates its top three safeties and is better at the spot the next season. Nebraska might be the exception this season. That probability is spearheaded by the anticipated arrival of Deontai Williams into the starting lineup. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound junior came to Nebraska last season fromJones County C.C. in Mississippi, where he wasranked as the nation’s No. 2 junior college safety by the 247Sports Composite rankings. Williams appeared in all 12 games with one start (Purdue) last year for the Huskers playing in a lot of Chinander’s sub-packages. He ended up recording 23 tackles with one tackle for loss, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, two interceptions and two pass breakups. Despite only playing in 244 (26%) defensive snaps, it seemed like whenever he was in the game, he was making plays. Williams tied for the team lead in interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. According to Pro Football Focus, Williams was able to grade out among the top five safeties in the Big Ten with at least 100 snaps in four of the five major categories that the players are graded on: overall, run defense, pass rush, and coverage. Williams received the best overall grade among safeties at 91.3, as well as the top grade in run defense at 86.9. In coverage, Williams got the second highest grade in the league of 89.9.
Williams had to bide his time behind a senior trio of Aaron Williams, Tre Neal and Antonio Reed. Travis Fisher was looking at the bigger picture with Williams. “I could’ve put him out there and made him a starter last year,” Fisher said. “I could’ve made him a full-time player last year. He’s probably the most athletic safety I had last year. Last year was all about making the room strong. It wasn’t about making the individual strong. I wanted to have four or five safeties that could play in a football game than to have one safety with experience.” Fisher used the opportunity to have Deontai learn from guys like Tre Neal and Aaron Williams, with the expectation being he’d be better for it in the long-run. Williams was one of Nebraska’s most productive defenders in 2018 and flashed some real playmaking potential. Now a full-time starter who will likely more than triple his snaps from last year, Williams should really take off as a player in 2019.
Pairing with Williams in the backend of the defense is Marquel Dismuke. The junior has appeared in 19 career games with one start (Northwestern, 2017) thus far as a Husker. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder spent his redshirt season in 2016 practicing at corner but was moved to safety the following year. He ended up playing every game in 2017 andcame on strong during the second half of the season, recording 34 tackles in the last seven games. He played sparingly on defense last season but continued to be a standout on special teams, blocking a punt against Illinois (NU’s first since 2015) that resulted in a safety. Erik Chinander said Dismuke has done “an unbelievable job” in making himself better from the first day the staff got here to now. He has followed the Lamar Jackson turnaround model. This spring, Travis Fisher described Dismuke as “a guy you don’t know if you want in the room completely” last season. Now, Dismuke is a guy who has spent the offseason calling and holding meetings among players and holding teammates accountable. The former four-star recruit has bought in to the culture, and seems to be on the verge of living up to the reputation he came to Lincoln with when ESPN ranked him the nation’s No. 6 safety. It was Dismuke who found himself atop the production chart for Fisher coming out of fall camp.
Thanks to youngsters like Taylor, Clark and Newsome standing out at cornerback, the staff was able to move Eric Lee to safety. The 6-foot, 215-pound senior has played in 26 games and made seven starts during the past three seasons. He’s spent his career at corner but is better suited for the safety position. Lee benefited from the move and had a solid fall camp. He’ll back up Deontai Williams.
Backing up Dismuke will be redshirt freshman Isaiah Stalbird out of Kearney. The former first-team Omaha World-Herald All-Nebraska and Lincoln Journal Star Super-State defensive back has received a lot of compliments from the staff during his first two camps. The 6-foot, 210-pounder headlines a trio of walk-ons who surprised some people by cracking the initial 2019 depth chart. Also appearing is 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior Eli Sullivan out of Longmont, Colorado, who played seven games last season primarily on special teams, while also seeing his first action on defense in Nebraska’s win over Bethune-Cookman. He’s listed No. 3 behind Dismuke and Stalbird. Currently No. 3 behind Williams and Lee is senior Reid Karel. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder out of Seward was a guy the previous staff liked. He was namedScout Team Defensive MVP during his redshirt season and has appeared in 18 career games on special teams.
I think people were surprised by the inclusion of the walk-ons because Nebraska’s entire 2019 DB class has drawn rave reviews from coaches and players alike, not just Quinton Newsome. The foursome have flashed because of their physical prowess, maturity and willingness to compete right out of the gate. Most expected a guy like Noa Pola-Gates to play immediately.The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Arizona native had been a top target for Scott Frost since he took the Nebraska job. Pola-Gates was one of the first 20 players Nebraska offered in the 2019 class, getting his Husker offer back on January 17, 2018. Selected to play in both theAll-American Bowl and Polynesian Bowl, Pola-Gates was a consensus four-star recruitranked No. 116 nationally by Rivals, No. 134 by 247Sports and No. 260 by ESPN. Travis Fisher has cross-trained him at corner and safety this summer, and he’s shown 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. 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.
Javin Wright has drawn comparisons to Braxton Clark. The6-foot-3, 205-pound legacy 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. Travis Fisher put Wright at corner – his preferred position – this summer, but it remains to be seen if he stays there long-term. He also saw action in Nebraska’s nickel and dime packages.
Fisher started Myles Farmer out at safety, but the 6-foot-3, 205-pounder could also project elsewhere long-term. He’s 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. Farmer suffered through some nagging injuries in camp, which put him behind. He was also one of a few players who had public incidents involving marijuana.
Nebraska should have one of the better secondaries they’ve had since 2010. They are more athletic than they’ve been in quite some time. Looking ahead, they are in line to be a really formidable group in 2020. You hear all the time how a football team will take on the personality of its head coach. That’s happening, of course, but it’s really becoming evident in the secondary. You really have to love the sort of physical profile that Fisher is bringing to Lincoln. He’s adding long, rangy athletes who are versatile enough to play multiple positions for him. Position 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.