LINCOLN — Arguably Nebraska’s best cornerback watched Saturday’s spring game in shorts and a T-shirt, with red-rimmed shades covering his eyes. Another potential contributor was on crutches.
So it’s hard for defensive coordinator Mark Banker to say with certainty that the Huskers have enough depth at one of the most important positions in his new unit.
Senior Daniel Davie missed much of spring. So did junior Charles Jackson, the player on crutches. His role hasn’t been clearly defined even though Jackson appeared to have turned a corner before suffering a season-ending injury last fall.
Banker, speaking to reporters after Saturday’s scrimmage, knew he’d soon be turning on game film and watching clips of redshirt freshman Trai Mosley securing an interception, senior Jonathan Rose battling for good position (he dropped a possible pick-six) and sophomore Chris Jones keeping speedster Brandon Reilly from making a big play. Sophomore Josh Kalu just missed his highlight-reel moment, arriving one step late on a touchdown pass to De’Mornay Pierson-El.
There is a lot of promise at cornerback. Banker can see it.
But does he feel confident about Nebraska’s numbers?
“Never,” Banker said. “Lot of young guys. Tough to assess after 15 practices. We need to see consistency going forward. The way we had teams divided this spring, we never really had guys together (as a unit) to really physically see things.”
NU’s coaches decided to split the defense into two separate teams, practicing alongside one another, so players could get more chances to showcase their skills. Forming a depth chart wasn’t the objective this spring. They hoped to assess the potential.
And Banker said he is pleased with what he saw across the board on defense.
The new staff did use portions of the spring to introduce its system to the players, teaching assignment-based principles and providing a schematic blueprint for the fall.
But mostly what Banker wanted to see from guys wasn’t playbook-related.
He looked for effort and intensity, judging players on their ability to get to the football and create havoc.
And the defenders had a blast trying to meet those expectations, linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey said.
“I’m very confident in the defense,” he said. “I think a lot of other people are. We put in some great work. Of course during spring ball, especially with the new offense coming in, we would expect the defense to kind of set the tone during the whole spring ball, which we did.”
But there are questions. In the mind of a coach, there are always questions.
Rose-Ivey and junior Josh Banderas capped a productive spring by performing well Saturday, but they were two of only six scholarship linebackers practicing this spring. Banker wants 12.
The Huskers’ No. 3 defensive end — behind presumed starters Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish — might just be someone who worked as a tight end last year. Redshirt freshman Freedom Akinmoladun has a high ceiling, but NU would like to see more options emerge at that spot.
And on Saturday, suddenly, a hint of uncertainty surfaced at safety as junior Nate Gerry watched from the sideline with a sun hat on his head and his knee wrapped. Then senior Byerson Cockrell left with an undisclosed injury.
So even when Banker sees a guy like Mosley beat senior receiver Taariq Allen to the football for a spring game interception, the veteran coach won’t jump to any conclusions.
Mosley, a 5-foot-10, 170-pounder from Pflugerville, Texas, was matched up twice in the end zone Saturday against a receiver with a five-inch height advantage, Jariah Tolbert. Mosley deflected one pass away. Safety Creighton Koley intercepted the other. That capped a strong spring for Mosley, who will look to compete for playing time in the fall.
That’s encouraging, Banker said. He said Nebraska needs as many contenders as possible at cornerback, which appears to be an isolated position within a new scheme that emphasizes an attacking and aggressive structure at the line of scrimmage.
Mosley was “a pleasant surprise,” Banker said.
“Good speed and ball awareness, and a hard worker,” the coach said. “You can’t have enough guys to play that position. He’s right in the thick of things.”
The position battles will resume in August, but coach Mike Riley indicated Saturday that he and his staff now have a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of this defense.
“We have learned a lot about what the guys can do, like defeating a block and making a play or seeing something and making a play,” Riley said. “That will be good information going into fall camp.”
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