Nebraska football took a hit Saturday afternoon when the news broke that senior cornerback Chris Jones could potentially miss four to six months following a surgery to repair his left meniscus. The loss of Jones is significant for the Huskers and one that affects the defense in quite a few ways, especially on the experience and leadership fronts.
There are a couple of potential outcomes depending on what Nebraska’s defensive staff wants to do and if they’re able to shuffle players around. Senior Joshua Kalu becomes a major factor in what ultimately happens to the secondary for 2017, so all eyes will be on him and where he’s positioned come fall camp.
As for how it could all shape up, let’s take a quick look at Nebraska’s options:
Joshua Kalu moves back to cornerback
Kalu was a two-year starting cornerback for the Huskers until this past spring. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco moved Kalu to the safety spot, saying at the time that it was done in order to get the best 11 players on the field at once. With Jones now out, it would make sense to move Kalu back to his original position, especially if Nebraska is looking for solid experience at the cornerback position.
If Diaco were to move Kalu to CB, Kieron Williams would likely play alongside Aaron Williams at safety.
Joshua Kalu stays at safety
Things get a little more unclear if Diaco opts to leave Kalu at safety. Younger talent would be expected to step up and develop quickly. Redshirt freshman Dicaprio Bootle, redshirt sophomore Eric Lee Jr. and sophomore Lamar Jackson would all become more important than ever if Kalu does not switch back.
Lee was impressive this past spring, emerging as a frontrunner for the No. 1 nickel spot and earning plenty of praise from Diaco and cornerbacks coach Donte Williams.
“He’s productive,” Diaco said during the spring. “He has great football intelligence. And he’s showing some tangible and intangible traits that we covet.”
At the same time, Diaco said he was trying to find a place for Lee. He suggested the Huskers would “see if he can rise to the occasion.” With Jones out, this could be that moment of truth for Lee.
As for Jackson, his play over the last year is a part of the reason Kalu made the move to safety. Like Lee, Jackson has also been waiting for the right opportunity on the field and this could be it. Depending on what Diaco decides to do with Kalu, the importance of Lee and Jackson – as well as Bootle – in 2017 increases significantly.
Jackson, who was the highest-ranked member of Nebraska’s 2016 class, had 17 tackles in 2016. He played in 13 games, which included one start. As for Lee, he had 2 tackles in 8 games.
Additional options for depth
Outside of Kalu, Nebraska has a little flexibility with its remaining depth. Sophomore Avery Anderson could play either safety or corner, and senior cornerback Boaz Joseph is in the position to make a move if necessary. Joseph has been a reserve cornerback the past two seasons and has seen the field mostly on special teams.
Redshirt freshmen Marquel Dismuke and Tony Butler could also be moved depending on need. Both saw most of their action at safety in the spring, but could switch to cornerback if depth is a concern.
Whatever Nebraska does, the loss of Jones is another hit to a secondary already reeling. Once considered a strength for the team in 2017, the Huskers will now have to figure out how to make it work without Jones and sophomore safety JoJo Domann, who tore his ACL during the spring and is not expected to return this season.
Beyond that, 2017 signee and cornerback Elijah Blades has yet to report to Nebraska and may not enroll after all. Considering he was the only defensive back the Huskers signed in the 2017 class, that news stings from a depth perspective.
Can Williams and safeties coach Scott Booker develop the younger players quickly? Nebraska fans know Williams can recruit, so now it’s all about development. With less than 50 days until the Huskers face Arkansas State, there are a lot of questions that have yet to be answered.
First and most important seems to be where Kalu goes. The rest will begin to fall into place after.