LINCOLN — Every member of Nebraska’s defense, resting on one knee with his helmet in hand, huddled around the fiery coordinator in the middle of the practice field Saturday.
No player moved. For more than 10 minutes.
The Husker defenders just locked eyes on John Papuchis, who addressed a practice performance that head coach Bo Pelini was simultaneously characterizing to reporters as “horrendous.”
When Papuchis was finished, linebackers coach Ross Els started up. Then D-line coach Rick Kaczenski shouted his thoughts. Secondary coach Terry Joseph took his turn, too.
Once the coaches left, the players huddled around a few of their newly minted leaders, most of whom are still adjusting to the role after eight of last season’s starters exhausted their eligibility. By the time the Huskers raised their arms together and half-shouted “defense,” Saturday’s practice had been over for 20 minutes.
The players weren’t available for interviews Saturday, but their somber walk toward the locker room said enough.
Their post-practice meeting with Pelini was up next. The head coach made no attempt to hide his frustration as he spoke to the media after the Huskers’ fifth practice of the spring.
“You could have put a grade-school offense out there against our defense and they would have (done well),” Pelini said. “It’s mental weakness. It’s guys giving in when they’re tired.”
It appears Nebraska’s young defense is dealing with the growing pains that Pelini had warned against three days earlier.
He told the players after Wednesday’s practice that he wanted to see more encouragement from the defense’s veterans. He said enthusiasm is needed at all times, especially when mistakes pile up, and that the spring won’t be easy.
But the Huskers, who also practiced Friday afternoon, didn’t respond during the two-hour session Saturday, Pelini said.
“Mentally weak football team,” he said. “Guys gave in and didn’t feel like practicing. I’m ashamed of what I just watched on that practice field.”
There was “some” scrimmaging Saturday, Pelini said. And the offense apparently had the edge, but Pelini said the workout “was so bad that we weren’t good in any regards.”
The Huskers have three practices before spring break, starting with Monday afternoon’s session. The plan this week, Pelini said: “Keep working.”
He acknowledged that he and his assistants have plenty of work to do.
“It starts with coaching,” Pelini said. “The coaching’s not near where it needs to be, and the execution’s nowhere near where it needs to be.”
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>> Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini discusses Saturday's spring practice: