Steven M. Sipple: If NU is looking for leaders, it may do well to start with its fatherly safeties

Nebraska’s Deontai Williams (8) and Marquel Dismuke (9) were two of the Huskers’ four leading tacklers in 2020. 

Listen to them talk. Listen to the maturity, the confidence, the humility.

These two players — these two fathers — surely are the heart of their team, or somewhere awfully close to the heart of it.

Senior safeties Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke have to be among the strongest leaders on Nebraska’s roster. Listen to them. They just have to be.

They’ll hit the snot out of dudes, that’s for sure. 

“Man, I felt like this team we have right now can do way more,” Williams said last week in explaining why he chose to return for another senior season, a development made possible by the NCAA’s COVID-19 eligibility freeze.

“We want to show the country that we’re better than everybody else thinks we are.”

Williams wants to leave a mark on the program. Leave a footprint. He has a 1½-year-old son, so he’s thinking 20 years ahead.

When you’re doing something for others besides yourself, your chances of success increase dramatically.

“My son, he’s watching me play right now,” Williams said. “When it’s his time to be a Husker, to play football, he’ll see what daddy has done.”

Dismuke also has a child, a 14-month-old daughter. Like Williams, he’s a mature, hard-hitting safety who has more than paid his dues for the program since joining it clear back in 2016, fresh out of Calabasas (California) High School.

Williams arrived in Lincoln in 2018 from the Mississippi junior college ranks.

The program is awfully lucky to have them back for another season.

“Man, it was hard on those guys. It was hard on those guys,” Nebraska secondary coach Travis Fisher said of their decision to return.

Real life kicks in when you become a father, Fisher said.

“It’s always about your kids,” the coach said. “I had to be sensitive to that because they have families, so it was hard to get those guys back. I showed those guys the pitch, showed those guys what I believe is the path to the goals that those guys are trying to reach.”

That involves finishing up strong in the classroom, he said. Williams and Dismuke have bachelor’s degrees and are working on their master’s.

Yes, master’s degrees. Think about their schedules. Family, classroom, football. They’re surely regarded as leaders in the locker room, and perhaps the very heart of the team.

Does Williams feel like an old guy, you know, since he’s 24, five or even six years older than some guys on the roster?

“Yeah, I’m like a grandpa here,” Williams said.

He knows younger players — up-and-comers such as redshirt freshmen Myles Farmer and Noa Pola-Gates — are watching his practice habits, his weight-room habits, his study habits. He wants them to know something important.

“It’s not just going to come to you automatically,” Williams said. “You have to work hard every day. Day by day.”

Said the 23-year-old Dismuke, who didn’t start full time until he was a junior: Stay humble. Keep learning. Keep trying to better yourself.

He’s a shining example of someone who could’ve jumped into the transfer portal, but elected to stick it out.

He’s worked alongside Williams for the past few years. Their bond is strong, their chemistry excellent.

“Sometimes he just knows what I’m thinking,” Williams said. “He doesn’t have to say anything. We just move. It’s just motion. It’s just like one rhythm.”

Just like a beating heart. The heart of a team, right?

“It’s tremendous,” Dismuke said of playing alongside Williams. “I can think of something and by the time I’m about to say it to him, he already knows what to do.”

They’re part of a defense that returns nine starters from last season, including the top eight tacklers. Williams is third on that list (51 stops), and Dismuke fourth (47).

Williams’ expectations for the unit are high. Same goes for the entire team.

“We’re trying to prove to the world that we’re better than they expect us to be,” he said.

What does he think the world expects?

“The world expects us to be about a .500 team, a 7-5 team,” he said.

“We’re trying to win the (Big Ten) West.”

Let’s be clear on something: There are leaders on this team other than Williams and Dismuke. Cam Taylor-Britt, a junior corner, is perhaps the best player on the defense, if not the team. He can lead, too.

The secondary as a whole is formidable. Formidable enough that Williams believes it can be one of the top-10 best in the nation.

Dismuke thinks Nebraska can be a top-10 defense, period.

It certainly helps to have two safeties who are grown men, who know the defensive system through and through, and who know each other through and through.

Williams and Dismuke take their kids to the park together. That just strengthens their bond.

Williams said he thinks about his son every hour of every day.

“I think about what he’s doing right now … probably playing,” Williams said. “Probably at daycare right now doing what he does. Doing what kids do.”

His dad plays football at a high level, mindful of his legacy — his family legacy and the legacy he’ll leave on the program.

It’s the same for Dismuke. Nebraska is lucky to have these guys back. Awfully lucky.

“We just go out and try to better each other each and every day — not settling for nothing,” Dismuke said.

Don’t settle. That’s the message of a leader.