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Nebraska Football: Defensive players to watch during spring game

Nebraska football is going to return a loaded defense for 2024.



Mandatory Credit: Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

There is a ton of depth to be had on the Nebraska football defense as Tony White looks to bring back a unit that was among the top in football last year.

They ranked eighth nationally with only 92.9 rushing yards allowed per game. They allowed only 303.5 yards per game, the program’s lowest mark since 2009. Stingy would be a good word to describe this defense, as they only allowed 18.3 points per game, which put them 17th nationally. The bottom line here is, they were pretty good.

Now, Nebraska returns a relatively young unit. A good mix of transfers and incoming freshman will  undoubtedly being a focal point of the defense in the future. As for now, the veterans should be able to take control of the unit. That’s not a bad thing at all, with consistency being established.

With the spring game only nine days away, we take a look at five defensive players to watch in the Red-White game.

Byle Hill

Blye Hill will be a name to watch for next Saturday, as the Nebraska football secondary continues to take shape.

Hill was part of the transfer class in 2024. He came to Nebraska football in December after coming over from St. Francis. He played in nine games recording 21 tackles and a tackle for loss last season. He had six pass breakups and two interceptions on the year.

The sophomore measures in at six-foot-three, and has been getting buzz throughout the course of spring practices. Has played well over the last couple of scrimmages, and was talked about by Tony White on Thursday, per Husker247’s Brian Christopherson.

” But the one that was noticeable out there on the edge was some of the DBs – like, I said, Blye Hill made a ton of plays.”

Nebraska football needs depth in the secondary, and Hill will be a key piece in it. He is not going to be just a filler type of player. He is going to undoubtedly make a name for himself. Damon Benning even said earlier this month that he believes Hill will start opposite of Tommi Hill in the corner room. That certainly sounds like a formidable duo.

Tommi Hill

Tommi Hill had a fantastic season in 2023. He struggled early in his Nebraska career, as the previous coaching staff did not put him in a position to succeed. Nevertheless, he was able to find his groove last year, and the results were noticeable.

He recorded 17 tackles, four interceptions, and nine pass deflections last season for Nebraska. He truly had a breakout year last year, with his best game coming against Purdue on October 28. Hill recorded two interceptions in the contest. Any questions about him being a good corner were quickly erased last season.

He is going to be one to watch next Saturday due to the fact that he has the opportunity to be one of the best corners in the Big Ten. This isn’t a game where he has to go out and make a name for himself. He’s already done that. Now, it’s just about building off of what he did last year, and fully solidifying himself as a No.1 corner. It will be interesting to see how he does against his matchups next Saturday.

Riley Van Poppel

Riley Van Poppel burst onto the scene as a freshman last year. He played in 11 games, and had five tackles, one tackle for loss, and a half sack. He recorded his first career tackle against Colorado, and he continued to develop from there, setting the stage for a strong sophomore season.

One of the more memorable plays of his season in my opinion was the goal line stop against Illinois. That stopped the Illini offense from marching down the field, and gave a glimpse into the physicality that he brought to the table. Ty Robinson and Nash Hutmacher are undoubtedly the two biggest strengths on the defensive line. However, Van Poppel certainly put together an impressive freshman season.

It will be interesting to see what he does next Saturday, after having a stellar spring ball, where he performed at a high level during the scrimmages. His development is important for the future, and his sophomore season will be important for growth, as well as continued strong play from the defensive line.

Marques Buford Jr.

Marques Buford Jr.  missed much of the season due to injury last year, but he still managed to make an impact. The Georgia native tallied 18 tackles in four games and also recorded a sack. He was able to preserve his redshirt last season, which was undoubtedly a bonus.

The safety position needs veteran leadership right now, as players continue to develop.  Buford Jr. should undoubtedly be able to have a major part in the room next season. The key for Buford is making sure he is able to continue to progress and work his way back from the injury. Nebraska does not have Omar Brown anymore, so they will be relying on Buford heavily.

The program has safeties waiting in the wings, like Caleb Benning and Kahmir Prescott for example. However, Buford’s veteran status undoubtedly makes him one of the leaders of that group. A strong showing next Saturday will certainly be encouraging. I’m going to look for his on-ball instincts as well as his ability to come down and stop the run.

Chief Borders

Borders has gotten a ton of praise over the course of this camp, with Matt Rhule even talking about him this week.

Borders came to Nebraska from Florida, and immediately made an impact. He played in all 12 games, recording nine tackles, a half tackle for loss, and one pass breakup. Those aren’t necessarily tremendous numbers, but he was able to get into the defensive action quickly on a unit loaded with depth.

Now, we’ll see if he can continue to perform at a high level. Again, it goes back to the defensive line. That unit in particular has a ton of playmakers on it. Borders and his development will be of continued importance to the line.

It goes back to being able to rotate players on this defense, which Tony White likes to do. Next Saturday will be a good indication of whether Borders has progressed even further over the course of the spring. As a junior, he could be in line for an even bigger role next year. Right now, it’s just about building for the season.

Danny is a Nebraska athletics fan and writer. He also enjoys writing about recruiting in his free time. Danny has been following the Huskers for the last five years. Find him on Twitter @NebCornholio.