SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Byerson Cockrell saw it one last time Saturday night, a glimpse into the future of the Nebraska defense.
The senior safety had been praising the talents of some up-and-comers all season, but even he was impressed after the 37-29 victory against UCLA at Levi’s Stadium.
The Husker defense featured three true freshmen most of the second half: linebacker Dedrick Young, nickel back Aaron Williams and safety Antonio Reed, who stepped in to replace captain Nate Gerry after Gerry’s ejection just before halftime.
“When you’re a freshman? Coming out of high school, just about?” Cockrell said. “These kids, they came in against UCLA and … coming in, playing hard and making plays.
“I was just surprised and I was just shocked, and I’m like, ‘Man, these boys are really going to be good.’”
Young, Williams and Reed weren’t the only youngsters seeing action. Redshirt freshman Freedom Akinmoladun rotated in at defensive end. True freshman linebacker Tyrin Ferguson contributed on special teams and was close to getting snaps on defense.
With a half-dozen others ready to come off redshirt seasons, junior linebacker Josh Banderas sees a “very promising” future.
“We’ve got some good young guys coming up,” Banderas said. “And I’m excited to see this winter how we can develop them, and see where they can fit in and help us in the future.”
Defensive coordinator Mark Banker said Reed was set to “play a big role” in the Huskers’ six-defensive back dime package against UCLA. He’d earned the role in recent weeks after playing mostly special teams through the regular season. There was then no turning back for the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder from Memphis after the targeting call on Gerry was reviewed and upheld with 33 seconds left in the first half.
Reed finished with four unassisted tackles and a forced fumble, and had tight coverage on an incomplete pass to receiver Thomas Duarte on the Bruins’ second-to-last offensive play.
“He came in calm and he was ready,” Cockrell said. “Antonio, he’s ready for anything. That’s what I like about him. I could sense that he was just ready to make any type of play, just out there to do his thing.”
Said Banderas: “For coming in as a freshman, never playing a game at safety, he did awesome. Couldn’t ask for better.”
It wasn’t perfect, Banker was quick to point out, but Reed kept playing — something that embodied what Banker started to see late in the season as the NU defense showed improved fortitude after taking its lumps and not always responding during a 3-6 start.
“They learned as we went along throughout the season,” Banker said. “They hardened up from an emotional standpoint. The faces didn’t drop.”
More than anything, Banker said, the players improved communication, on and off the field. And that improvement could continue as the Huskers head into a second year with Banker while possibly losing only three veterans who played a lot down the stretch — Cockrell, defensive tackle Maliek Collins and defensive end Jack Gangwish.
Williams, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound safety from Atlanta, finished his first season with 24 tackles. Banker noticed in recent practices that Williams was getting his hands on a growing number of passes.
“In one case he barely knows what he’s doing,” Banker said, “and now he’s got a better understanding and he’s able to take his abilities as a playmaker.”
Banker also has to like that competition for jobs will increase heading into spring practice with these redshirted players seeking more than scout-team duty in 2016: linebacker Mohamed Barry, defensive ends Alex Davis and DaiShon Neal, defensive tackles Carlos and Khalil Davis and defensive backs Avery Anderson and Eric Lee.
NU also finished 2015 with sophomores Josh Kalu and Chris Jones starting at cornerback, and sophomore linebacker Marcus Newby showed improvement before missing the bowl game with a groin injury. Kalu stuffed the defensive stat sheet with 75 tackles (five for losses), three interceptions, seven pass breakups and a blocked kick this season.
Junior defensive end Greg McMullen said the Huskers will piece it all together, just as they did with Reed and so many other underclassmen on the field Saturday.
“When I’m out there, I trust the guys that are out there with me, so I never really look at them as freshmen or sophomores or juniors or whatever,” McMullen said. “I know if they’re out there, they’re out there because they can do their job.”
Contact the writer: