Pernell: Previewing the Secondary

J.K. Dobbins fends off Lamar Jackson
J.K. Dobbins fends off Lamar Jackson on a 52-yard TD run.
The Husker secondary was tough to watch last season. Cornerbacks consistently played 10-12 yards off the ball while allowing anything to be caught in front of them. Former coordinator Bob Diaco’s strategy of trying to avoid the big play forced fans to watch their teams death by a thousand cuts. The secondary – and defense as a whole, seemed to wave the white flag soon after the opening kickoff. The Huskers’ pass defense was tied for 77th in interceptions last season, 95th in opposing quarterback rating, 119th in passes defended, and gave up a Big Ten-worst 7.3 yards per pass attempt. Oof.

Depth in the secondary was alarmingly light to Nebraska’s coaching staff when they arrived in December. Frost’s offense puts a defense on the field more than most, so Travis Fisher wants to rotate his defensive backs often. He wants to have two solid groups. “I’m going to need more than just a starting four or starting five,” Fisher said. “I’m going to need eight guys to rotate in a game. That’s how I had it at UCF. When spring practice began in March, the Huskers only had eight total defensive backs, four safeties and four cornerbacks, on scholarship. Erik Chinander has said they prefer 15 or 16. This past June during the ‘Husker Nation Tour,’ Fisher revealed that only three of those eight defensive backs came through the spring fully healthy. Needless to say, the secondary was Nebraska’s primary area of concern coming out of the spring.

No position group underwent as big an overhaul in the offseason. The Huskers have added a grad transfer, a junior college transfer and four freshmen to that group. According to coaches, that unit has made the biggest improvement through fall camp. “When I walked into this deal, I was worried – very worried. Concerned about the depth. Right now, I’ve got the depth, I’ve got the guys,” Fisher said. “I’m very happy to see how the secondary so far, how they’ve handled camp. And they’ve approached it with … how I wanted it to be. They’ve took my coaching, and sometimes it was rough. It was tough love. They took it like a champ. I’m proud of that group and I haven’t even told them that yet.” Fisher told reporters at the conclusion of fall camp that the secondary was far more disruptive in August than they had been in spring. Fisher revealed the Husker defensive backs finished with six interceptions in the spring, but were in the mid 20s for fall camp.

Safety should be one of the deepest position groups on the team, and the Huskers are hoping that competition will get the most out of the players. Part of the optimism relates to the addition of Tre Neal, who announced July 20 he was joining the Husker program as a graduate transfer. Neal was UCF’s fourth-leading tackler in 2017 with 68 tackles (41 solo), while also adding three picks and five pass breakups. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Neal started all 13 games for the Knights in 2017 and saw action in 38 games the last three seasons, making 18 career starts. Frost said at Big Ten media days Neal brings leadership at a position group that needs it. Neal enjoyed a strong fall camp in Lincoln and has provided the sort of leadership Frost was hoping. “He’s a quarterback on defense,” Fisher said. “That’s what he was at UCF. We asked him to go out and get the defense lined up and make all the checks. He did it and did it with confidence. He’s been doing that since he’s been back with us.” It’s not surprising he locked down a starting spot.

Neal will be paired up with another newcomer in the backend of the defense. Deontai Williams jumped right into the mix after arriving in January. He played last season at Jones County C.C. in Mississippi, where he was ranked as the nation’s No. 2 junior college safety by the 247Sports Composite rankings. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound sophomore instantly opened eyes in spring practice with his hard-hitting physicality, to the point where coaches had to tell him to tone it down a bit. The staff loves his versatility, he has gotten reps at safety, nickel and corner during spring and fall camps. “Deontai is probably the most athletic DB I have,” Fisher said. “He’s going to play a lot for us. I may even make him a corner. He’s a safety, but I may make him a corner. He can play, he can cover, but right now, I think it’s best to keep him at safety.”

The staff was also pleased with the progress made by Antonio Reed. The Tennessee native’s potential has never been a question. He played as a true freshman and was a standout on special teams. Despite appearing in 35 games, with five starts, the mental part of the game hasn’t quite clicked for the senior. He would have benefited from a redshirt season somewhere along the line. Reed has the size (6-2, 215), athleticism, and physicality to be a versatile piece of this defense.

Reed is currently listed as the co-starter with Deontai Williams, but I wouldn’t be surprised if JoJo Domann eventually took over as the teams No. 3 safety. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder was ranked the top player in the state of Colorado by 247Sports for the 2016 recruiting class, and was named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year. He impressed the previous staff and played in every game as a true freshman, primarily on special teams. Heading into his sophomore year, Domann enjoyed a breakout spring and was expected to be among Nebraska’s top three safeties, if not push for a starting spot. But then he tore his ACL and had surgery April 12, 2017. Initially, there was talk that Domann could possibly return at some point during the 2017 season. He was wise not to rush back. Instead he redshirted with the intention of maximizing the three years of eligibility still in his pocket. Unfortunately, he suffered a setback when he tore his ACL again playing basketball at the university’s rec center. He had a second surgery on November 6 and missed this past spring. By all accounts, Domann has impressed the new staff this month in his return to action. He could see time at safety or nickel.

Another holdover from the Riley era that has impressed is Marquel Dismuke. Ranked by ESPN as the nation’s No. 4 safety in the 2016 recruiting class, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound California native has been mentioned alongside Deontai Williams as someone who is an aggressive hitter. Fisher has said the sophomore has made the most improvements of any safety since spring. Dismuke started coming into his own a little bit late last season, finishing with 34 tackles – all coming in the last seven games, and earning a start against Northwestern. He figures to be a factor next season, when Nebraska loses seniors Tre Neal, Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams.

Speaking of Aaron Williams, it might have come as a bit of a surprise to see the 5-foot-11, 190-pound team captain from last year listed on the 3rd team. After all, he’s been a mainstay in the lineup since enrolling early as a true freshman back in 2015. He has appeared in 35 games with 22 career starts since then. It’s more an aftereffect of the shoulder injury he suffered at the beginning of the Red-White Spring Game keeping him out of action until August 20 – the 15th practice of fall camp. Williams is working with his fourth different safeties coach and third defensive coordinator, and has impressed all of them with his football intelligence. If completely healthy, it won’t be long before Williams is a fixture at safety.

The staff is excited about a pair of four-star freshmen safeties they signed in the 2018 class. C.J. Smith (6-2, 205) and Cam’ron Jones (6-0, 200), who the staff graded out as the No. 1 safety in the country, will be afforded redshirts. They’re also excited about the potential being shown from freshman walk-on Isaiah Stalbird (6-0, 195), who was a first-team Omaha World-Herald All-Nebraska and Lincoln Journal Super-State defensive back.

Cornerback is a different story. Frost and his staff were not high on the group they inherited. They have been public about that, and have gone as far as saying there was a real culture problem in that room when they arrived. Travis Fisher publicly challenged his guys, particularly Lamar Jackson. As arguably the thinnest position group on the team, the progression of the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Jackson is one of the most important ones for this team. Jackson came to Nebraska as the prized piece of its 2016 recruiting class, a four-star prospect ranked as the No. 1 safety in the country. He has shown flashes, but after two full seasons working as one of the Huskers’ top cornerbacks, Jackson hasn’t come close to living up to all of the hype that accompanied him to Lincoln. He has zero interceptions in 25 career games (13 starts). Can Jackson, who is on his third position coach in as many seasons, finally develop into the difference-maker everyone envisioned? Fisher complimented the growth he has made since the new staff got here, will it translate this season? Few people on this roster have greater physical tools than Jackson.

The other starting corner will be sophomore Dicaprio Bootle, famous for the 4.34 40-yard dash that he ran at a satellite camp in Miami. But Bootle has proven to be a lot more than just one of the fastest players on the team. He impressed his first two position coaches, Brian Stewart and Donté Williams, and he’s starting to leave an impression on Travis Fisher. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Bootle nearly played as a true freshman, but the previous staff decided to redshirt him because of depth at the position. Last year, he appeared in all 12 games primarily at cornerback, but actually earned his first career start at safety against Ohio State. This offseason, he has been cross-trained at corner, nickel corner and even some at safety.

The No. 3 corner is true freshman Cam Taylor. That can be taken a couple different ways. Glass half-empty guy will point to the lack of depth and the disappointing careers of guys like Eric Lee, Avery Anderson and Tony Butler. Glass half-full guy will point to Taylor’s athleticism, confidence and football intelligence. The Alabama native has ideal size (6-0, 205) and the look of a future all-conference contender. The high school quarterback is just getting his feet wet at corner, but all indications are that the sky’s the limit. He has sought the advice of veterans like Bootle and coaches have commented about his willingness and work ethic to learn the intricacies of the position. He probably has the highest ceiling of the corners on the roster. Taylor likely earns plenty of reps, perhaps as the No. 1 nickel, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him eventually overtake Jackson or Bootle on the depth chart. For all the hype and praise that newcomer Maurice Washington received on the offensive side of the ball this summer, Taylor was equally lauded.

Taylor isn’t the only freshman corner who has impressed in his first fall camp. Braxton Clark quietly had a strong summer himself. Travis Fisher said Clark might have led the team in interceptions during fall camp. The staff loves his frame (6-4, 200), mentality, physicality, and potential to thrive in their press-scheme. Some were surprised to see him listed as the No. 2 corner behind Jackson, ahead of a guy like Eric Lee, who made six starts last season.

Redshirt freshman walk-on Ethan Cox was running with the No. 2 defense in spring. The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder out of Blair was a first-team Class B all-state pick by the Omaha World-Herald as an athlete. He has been getting a lot of reps this fall at nickel. The staff also likes what they’ve seen out of walk-on Moses Bryant. Fisher has described Bryant as a “mongoose” for how quick and aggressive he plays. Bryant is a special case as a walk-on. Concerns over him academically qualifying clearly caused the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder from garnering FBS offers. One of the most prolific players in state history, Bryant is Nebraska’s 11-man football all-time record holder with 105 career touchdowns, as well as Class B’s all-time leading rusher with 5,454 yards. He was a member of the Omaha World-Herald’s Super Six and was an All-Nebraska defensive back selection in 2017. Bryant was a fixture at the FNL camps organized by the previous staff. He worked out as a WR in 2015, and as a CB in 2016 and 2017, while being identified as a standout each time. He seems like a candidate to be put on scholarship relatively soon. Position Grade: C+


Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all-football website N2FL. 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 [email protected].