Huskers Have Plenty of Options to Fill Secondary Positions
By Shane G. Gilster • Photos by NU Sports Information
The Blackshirt defense made marked improvements in 2021 and had Nebraska at least in shouting distance of every opponent in a disappointing 3-9 season. One of the bright spots was the play of the secondary, which featured seasoned seniors at every spot but one.
Now the defensive backfield needs to reload, finding starters for one cornerback, two safeties and the nickel spot formerly manned by second-team All-American JoJo Domann.
“JoJo is gone, Deontai (Williams) is gone, Marquel (Dismuke) is gone, Cam (Taylor-Britt) is gone, but there were players last year that I feel good about along with the transfers and freshmen this year,” said Erik Chinander, NU’s defensive coordinator. “There will be a lot of battling (to) find out who will be the next player at that nickel position. Will it be Javin Wright, Isaac Gifford, or do we need to pull someone from a corner or safety, depending on who wins those battles on the outside?”
Another player who has put himself in contention at the nickel spot, basically a fifth defensive back on expected pass plays who can also play the run like a linebacker, is Chris Kolarevic. The senior played linebacker last season after transferring from Northern Iowa. He played in every game and showed the ability to replace Domann.
“Kolarevic can really run and has a chance to take over that position; he can play the run and blitz off the edge but I have to see what he can do in coverage,” Chinander said. “JoJo had a unique skillset where he was a big guy and could be physical in the run game and blitz off the edge. He had the movement skills to cover just about anybody we played. When we find someone for the position, we have to use his assets and whatever liabilities he has either in coverage or run fits to try and cover it up. Hopefully, we can find a player similar to JoJo but you can’t say this is the next JoJo.”
Kolarevic is confident he can be that next guy. He is the same size as Domann (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) and speedwise he looks just as fast or faster.
“I think I have the athletic ability to do it,” Kolarevic said. “I played a little bit of it in middle school and it’s a fun position. You could fly around playing space a lot.
“It’s a good thing to have (Domann) come before me. I see it as a good thing because I get to go watch his film and see what he did really well and look at and try to do some of the things he did.”
Kolarevic played mike and will linebacker and nickel at UNI. He never played nickel in a game, but that was the position he was practicing at in 2020 before COVID-19 canceled UNI’s season.
He said the hardest part of the position is covering a slot receiver in game situations. He has been working on that in practice and prepared for it in the offseason. In terms of schemes, he is learning from guys like Gifford, who played that position last year, and from Domann’s tape.
“He’s a bigger guy, but he understands how to play man-to-man, especially in space on tight ends and No. 2 receivers,” Kolarevic said of Domann. “That’s kind of the biggest thing for big guys that have to go out of the box, like figuring out how to use leverage outside the box. He also used physicality a lot when he got in the box, especially off the edge, using his big body to be physical.”
Gifford might be helping Kolarevic, but he’ll also be his biggest competition at nickel. Gifford, a sophomore, isn’t as big as Kolarevic, at 6-1, 205, but saw action as Nebraska’s nickel back in the last two games of 2021, filling in for Domann who was out with a hand injury.
“Isaac is close to JoJo skills wise; he played safety in high school but JoJo was better in coverage and Isaac is better around the ball,” Chinander said. “Isaac studied the game film and he knows where (the ball) is going to be but just needs to make that play a little bit quicker.”
Then there is Wright, who physically looks the part (6-4, 210) but has battled injuries since he arrived at NU in 2019.
“Javin has been so banged up, but sky’s the limit for his skill set. He started at corner for us and grew out of that,” Chinander said. “He’s 6-3 plus and has good weight on him; his coverage ability is really good for his size, which is an extreme plus.”
Besides the nickel spot, most of the secondary is up for grabs.
That’s why NU defensive backs coach Travis Fisher recruited seven new players. They include two portal transfers, Tommi Hill (Arizona State) and Omar Brown (Northern Iowa), along with junior college players Javier Morton and DeShon Singleton, giving his group added competition.
“I tell my players that when I was in the NFL, even if I was a starter, teams would bring someone in to take my spot. I had to beat those guys out. So, it is the same way here, I brought in guys to not be anyone’s backup,” said Fisher, who had an eight-year career in the NFL. “So, if I’m one of the guys who are already here, I have to be like, ‘It’s time to pick it up.'”
But Fisher has a core group of what he calls “true” Blackshirts and leaders in the secondary. He specifically named juniors Quinton Newsome, Braxton Clark and sophomore Myles Farmer. Newsome is the only returning starter for Fisher, while Clark and Farmer are favorites to land a cornerback and safety spot, respectively.
“It’s tough for guys to start for me for 12 games because I am asking them to do things that guys in the NFL do,” Fisher said. “But Quinton Newsome did, and if he keeps doing that, he will be another guy for us playing the NFL someday.”
While talking about some of the new guys who have a chance to make a move, Fisher named sophomore Marques Buford. In his first year in 2021, Buford played in every game, seeing most of his action on special teams coverage units.
“Marques Buford is my hidden gem,” Fisher said. “He can play any position in the secondary and he ain’t scared of nobody.”
Buford is one of the smaller players NU has at safety (5-11, 190) but has the attitude to excel.
“I’m not scared of anybody, and if you go out there with that dog mentality, it doesn’t matter whether you’re 4-11 or 5-11,” Buford said. “You have to show me you are better than me. If you come out with that mentality, then how do you lose? If you refuse to lose and put the work in not to lose, then at the end of the day more than likely you are going to be a winner.”
That is the mindset NU needs not only in its secondary but throughout the whole defense. If that becomes the case, expect the Blackshirts to hold their own again in 2022.