LINCOLN — After the spring's first defined low point Saturday, Nebraska's defense rebounded with an inspired effort Monday afternoon.
But the challenge, especially for a mistake-prone and mentally fragile group, is to sustain the enthusiasm, and the fearlessness, and the resiliency — or whatever else was missing Saturday, when a young defense apparently sulked around the practice field for two hours.
From all accounts, Monday's session was better. Much better.
It's only one practice, but certainly an encouraging step for the aspiring Blackshirts, whom Ciante Evans said were eager to prove themselves again.
“We had the mindset that we need to bring it,” said the senior defensive back. “Saturday, I think, we took a step back.
“But (Monday) we gained a step. We came out ready. We had it in our mind to get better as soon as we stepped on the field.”
Perhaps Saturday's poor practice (and the impromptu on-field meeting for 20 extra minutes at midfield) provided the wake-up call Nebraska's defense needed. Maybe it will be the turning point.
Or maybe that error-filled workout — so unsatisfactory that coach Bo Pelini sternly, and quite publicly, reprimanded the group in a terse interview afterward — was a sign of things to come for a unit that's full of new faces and still in the early stages of its offseason transition.
At least for a day, though, defensive coordinator John Papuchis saw the response he was looking for. Monday, the sixth practice of 15 this spring, went well, he said.
“Lessons are learned in a lot of different ways in this sport,” Papuchis said. “I think some lessons were learned on Saturday.”
Namely, what the NU defensive coaches will not tolerate, even from an inexperienced unit. They expected to guide the Huskers through extreme highs and lows this spring.
Nebraska lost eight starters from a year ago. A defensive system reliant on pre-snap communication is now missing the guys who did all the talking. The new front seven has just one player (Jason Ankrah) in the two-deep roster with extensive experience in this scheme. NU's starting from scratch at safety, too.
So Saturday's practice wasn't a surprise, but that doesn't make it acceptable.
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“It's not an unnatural position to be in with as many young guys as we have,” Papuchis said. “But we've got to get them over that.”
Papuchis' best suggestion going forward for his defenders: Make an effort to correct your flaws, but don't ever let the fear of failure compromise your desire to play hard.
A few players offered the underclassmen similar advice before the unit left the field Saturday.
Said junior cornerback Josh Mitchell: “You've just got to go 100 mph. The thing is, people don't know what they're doing, so they're playing slow. And it affects everybody.”
Part of that hesitancy is a result of playing too tense or too businesslike, Evans said. He wants everyone to let loose. Embrace a carefree attitude. “They think of it as more of a job,” he said. “They're not having fun.”
Senior Brodrick Nickens, who moved from the offensive line to the D-line on Friday, even spoke up briefly after practice Saturday.
“I don't know a lot about the defense, but I just know how to work,” he remembers telling his teammates. “I'm going to make a lot of mistakes, but I promise you, I'm going to give 110 percent when I'm making those mistakes.”
It seems that's the kind of attitude the NU coaches want.
Because the message Pelini and his staff were seemingly trying to instill Saturday was that a player's high-effort approach can't be abandoned when he's tired, confused or struggling.
“If you're playing hard and you're trying to correct the mistakes that you make, I can work with that,” Papuchis said. “And I think that was the point we were at Saturday, which I thought (Monday) we made some strides.”
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