Ever since the calendar turned to 2019, Nebraska’s secondary has been among the most widely praised position groups on the roster.
Head coach Scott Frost lauded the defensive backs for their work in the winter conditioning program. Secondary coach Travis Fisher’s excitement was evident throughout the spring, and offensive players and coaches noticed the difference, too.
Fisher has been clear that he likes the trajectory of the group, but he also hasn’t been shy that he expects a quartet of incoming freshmen — Javin Wright, Quinton Newsome, Myles Farmer and Noa Pola-Gates — to provide an immediate challenge for the veterans.
“I hope my freshmen can come in and be impacts,” Fisher said at the outset of spring. “I think I’ve got — I don’t want to be too positive before it happens, but I really like my freshmen. I really do.”
The incumbents, though, aren’t just going to sit idly by. Junior safety Deontai Williams described the secondary room this spring as “hectic,” because, “everybody’s trying to win a job, and that makes everybody better. We’re just competing … because everybody wants to beat somebody (for a job).”
If the room is hectic now, Williams was asked just before the spring game, what will it be like when four more players — recruited and coveted by Fisher — join the fold this summer?
“The four guys that are coming, they’ve got to be ready. Really ready,” Williams responded. “Because what we’re doing here now is trying to be great. When they step in, they’ve got to get their feet hot and they’d better be ready to compete. It’s not just going to be walk in and take somebody’s spot. No. It’s battle to the finish.”
The 20 scholarship players that are slated to join NU this summer will begin arriving as early as May 19. All four of the defensive backs should be in Lincoln by early June, when the official summer weight program and first block of summer classes begins.
Even then, it’s not exactly clear where they will each begin their respective careers. At the beginning of spring, Fisher said Wright would play corner and the rest would start off as safeties. At the end of the spring, he said the opposite. Perhaps it will be two and two. Likely some or all will play different spots as they learn, like sophomore Cam Taylor did this spring.
At corner, NU has a pair of established veteran starters in senior Lamar Jackson and junior Dicaprio Bootle, along with Taylor. Redshirt freshman Braxton Clark drew praise last fall from Fisher but was limited this spring, while senior Avery Anderson has been mostly a reserve.
At safety, the Huskers’ top pair this spring featured Williams and fellow junior Marquel Dismuke, with converted corner and senior Eric Lee in the top three. Redshirt freshman CJ Smith spent the spring recovering from knee surgery but was on the verge of more playing time when he suffered the season-ending injury in October. He should be full-go this summer, and junior reserve Tony Butler has also made progress.
Junior JoJo Domann is a wild card, as he might play mostly outside linebacker but is also an option to play in the secondary.
It’s certainly possible that a freshman or even multiple freshmen carve out roles for themselves as soon as this fall, but they’ll have to pass several of the above scholarship guys as well as veteran walk-ons like Ethan Cox and Reid Karel in order to do so.
“I think those guys are really talented and they’re not skinny, bony guys,” Fisher said of the incoming group. “They do have to get stronger, but it’s not like those guys haven’t been in a weight room. Myles Farmer is already probably my biggest safety right now. Quinton Newsome is also a big one. Noa Pola-Gates is a little smaller than those guys, but he’s more explosive.”
Taylor managed to do it last year as a converted high school quarterback, albeit in a thinner group, appearing in 10 games and playing extensively.
“I just tell them that they’ve got to come in with the dog mentality,” Taylor said. “Just because, Coach Fish, he’s going to coach you hard and he’s going to be cool with you, but you’ve just got to know when to flip it on, if it’s time to work or time to play.”