It's rather telling just how far the Nebraska secondary has come in only one year's time under Scott Frost. During a recent radio appearance, Frost commented on how much the defensive back culture has changed. "[The strength coaches talked] about their least favorite group to work with last year [and that] might have been the DBs," Frost said. "They say this year that their favorite group to work with is the DBs." This is excellent news for a unit that was largely responsible for a disappointing showing during the Blackshirts' growing pains last year.
Nebraska surrendered nearly 238 yards through the air on average over 12 games to finish with a national ranking of 78th. The Cornhuskers gave up more than 300 passing yards on four separate occasions including a 455-yard day in a heartbreaking overtime loss to Northwestern. However, Erik Chinander's defensive success isn’t all about yardage. Ultimately, the Blackshirts want to get the ball back in the hands of Frost's high-powered offense one way or another.
In that regard, the secondary chalked up eight interceptions. However, the Huskers still finished with a minus-two turnover margin making this another defensive group that needs a major uptick in production. There were two fantastic stories in 2018, though. Cornerback Lamar Jackson went from being benched versus Purdue and considering a transfer to earning his starting job back and performing at a level not seen over the course of his career.
Said Frost of Jackson on the aforementioned radio program, "He's a guy that's really figured some things out last year and by the end of the year was playing at a really high level. He's a great team guy now; he's working hard. Got all the talent in the world and he's kind of an example of the turnaround in that room."
On the opposite side, Dicaprio Bootle was one of the Big Ten’s most annoying defensive backs to pick on. He tied former Huskers Fabian Washington and Ralph Brown II for the second most pass breakups in a year (15).
Key Departures: S Antonio Reed, S Tre Neal, S Aaron Williams
Key Returners for 2019: CB Lamar Jackson (Sr.), CB Dicaprio Bootle (Jr.), S Deontai Williams (Jr.), S Marquel Dismuke (Jr.)
The aforementioned Jackson and Bootle look to mug and irritate opposing receivers yet again, but Nebraska must replace its entire starting safety group. Deontai Williams — one of the most physical players on the team — appears to have the inside track to pick up the starting free safety role while Marquel Dismuke would be a natural fit at strong safety.
It’s hard to not refer to Frost’s second year at UCF to at least speculate the type of improvement the defense could potentially show in 2019. In 2016, the Knights' secondary recorded 15 interceptions. The next year, UCF tallied 20 picks led by four each from Kyle Gibson and Mike Hughes, who now plays for the Minnesota Vikings. A third player, Tre Neal, had three. Neal transferred from UCF to Nebraska and he picked off one pass in his lone season with the Huskers.
Jackson and Bootle may very well be Nebraska’s Hughes and Gibson with Williams and Dismuke taking advantage of misplaced long balls. If Nebraska's front seven is able to get penetration and do a better job defending the short to intermediate passing game, then the unit should be able to create more turnovers and help get the ball back into Adrian Martinez' hands on offense. That's a key part of the blueprint for a successful 2019 campaign.
Position Grade for 2019: B
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces) and enjoy the Eight Laces podcast. To contact him with tips, story ideas or for interview purposes, click here.