LINCOLN — There was never any plan to ease Malcolm Hartzog into anything.
Bill Busch considers this a high compliment about the Nebraska true freshman. When the coaches decided to deploy the 18-year-old for his first career start under the lights Saturday, there was no discussion about sitting the defender for a series or slowly acclimating him to a major role in a Big Ten game.
“No, just go ahead and go,” Busch said. “Nothing’s too big for him. He likes to play football.”
Hartzog didn’t wilt. He broke up a pass and allowed just one catch on six targets to Indiana receivers he was defending. He had appeared in every previous game this season on special teams but didn’t leave the field Saturday across 70 snaps. Along the way he became the first Nebraska true freshman to start at corner since Lamar Jackson in 2016.
People are also reading…
“I was nervous but I had to lock in before the game so I had to block all of it out,” Hartzog said Saturday. “It felt good getting on the field for the first time in front of the fans.”
Hartzog was a find of former defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, a diamond in the rough from rural Mississippi — his hometown of Prentiss has a population of 1,200. He wasn’t rated by any recruiting service when the Huskers offered him a scholarship in late November or when he committed a week later. His other top suitors were Mississippi, Southern Miss, Marshall and South Alabama.
Chinander last winter told the tale of discovering Hartzog. While prospecting in the South, the coordinator repeatedly heard the name of the do-everything player from a small school in the south-central part of the state. The word of mouth was so consistent that Chinander rescheduled some recruiting visits and pointed his rental car a different direction that day.
As Chinander was wrapping up a stop at a nearby junior college, a coach there asked where he was heading next. Chinander told him.
“Oh,” the juco coach responded. “The secret’s out.”
Hartzog committed, then got increased attention nationally that he and his prep coaches rebuffed. The Huskers believed in him, so he was sticking with them. He stuffed the stat sheets at Jefferson Davis County High School as a running back, defensive back and kick returner that helped earn him the Mr. Football honor in his classification.
“You watch the film and you see the accolades and you watch him live,” Chinander said last winter. “And I just didn't think we could miss on him.”
Early returns support that notion. No. 13 is co-No. 1 at his cornerback spot with the man he replaced last week, Tommi Hill. He’s fresh off being named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week for his scoop and score on the punt blocked by Chris Kolarevic.
“It wasn’t a surprise when the ball popped into his hands and ran back for a touchdown because he anticipates that stuff,” Busch said. “Some guys are just hooked up the right way and that’s who he is. Love the young man and just so happy he’s doing well.”
Hartzog was under-recruited in part because he is undersized — Nebraska lists him at 5-foot-9, 170 pounds now. Busch likens him to having many of the same traits that former All-America Husker corner Barron Miles possessed in the early ‘90s. Relentlessly competitive. A special-teams playmaker. Giving up inches to opposing receivers and not caring.
Busch said he gets nervous about anybody in football that doesn’t want to tackle or can’t tackle. Big Ten offenses are going to make corners tackle, especially true freshmen.
Hartzog knocks that worry away like a guy jumping a lazy out route. This is where he wants to be. And a chance he’s earned.
“He’s an extremely capable and invested tackler,” Busch said. “Some guys are, ‘Ah, I’m a cover corner.’ He does have to cover people but he has no problem putting his face in the fan either. That’s the thing that stands out the most.”