Competition at cornerback now in full swing
With six senior starters returning for an additional year of eligibility this season and a wealth of other experience coming back, Nebraska's defensive lineup was pretty much already set going into the start of spring practices.
One of the most obvious starting jobs belongs to cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt, who returned for another year after briefly flirting with an early jump to the NFL.
However, on the other side of the field is arguably the most significant remaining question mark on NU's defensive depth chart.
With three primary candidates in sophomores Nadab Joseph, Quinton Newsome, and Braxton Clark, the competition has already begun for the starting cornerback job opposite Taylor-Britt this season.
"Those guys are pushing the note every day and getting better," defensive backs coach Travis Fisher said. "Those guys are getting healthy; they're moving around, they're flying around. So for me, it's about being smart with them and making sure we have no setbacks."
As Fisher noted, injuries hindered the depth at that position in 2020.
Clark suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in October before even playing a game. Joseph had to wait until November before being granted eligibility from the NCAA, and he played in just two games before his season ended with a knee injury at Purdue.
Fisher said Clark's injury was especially disappointing in that he had an opportunity not only to be a fixture in Nebraska's secondary last year but potentially even push for a starting job.
"Braxton definitely would've had a role for us last year – could have even had a starting role for us last year at some point," Fisher said. "But it's very rewarding for me to have him back healthy and getting back into the swing of things."
Fisher said Joseph was also back to full strength this spring, and the former junior college standout had put in as much work as anyone this offseason to make his case.
"Nadab is doing a great job. A great job," Fisher said. "He's here early in the morning, sometimes before I get here. He's learning the defense, worked his butt off during winter conditioning with Coach (Zach) Duval and his staff, and he's really helped himself out with that."
Newsome was able to stay healthy and saw the field in every game last season on defense and special teams. He had four tackles and forced fumble in the opener at Ohio State and then made his first career start at cornerback the next time out at Northwestern.
With a healthy Clark and Joseph and a more experienced Newsome, the Huskers look to have three solid options to replace departed senior Dicaprio Bootle, who made 32 consecutive starts over the past three seasons.
But as Fisher and NU defensive coordinator Erik Chinander have noted, it's likely the defense will need all three to contribute early and often in 2021 regardless of who earns the starting spot.
"You need to be able to roll in three or four guys (at cornerback) every game and make sure everybody's fresh," Chinander said. "There may be more than two on the field, or you're playing against a really good Oklahoma football team. It's pretty powerful on offense, and they're going to be in spread situations.
"There may be a good rotation going on there. I think we're going to have to identify those guys through spring and then really get them a lot of reps in fall camp, and we're going to have to play them early so that they're ready for a game like that."