Published Saturday, March 16, 2013 at 8:17 pm / Updated at 8:22 pm
Husker defense has to play catch-up

LINCOLN — When Nebraska nickel back Ciante Evans was a sophomore, he’d often line up across from a slot receiver and then quickly isolate himself outside the defensive system by neglecting to recognize his teammates’ roles.

He’d have safeties or linebackers shading his way to help in pass coverage, but Evans would be too fixated on his responsibilities. And he didn’t win many battles with that approach.

Evans is a senior now, a veteran in Bo Pelini’s team-oriented scheme. He’s cured of his individualistic tendencies — mostly by film study and in-game experience — but he certainly understands what the Husker youngsters are going through this spring.

His advice: “Be more active. Be more involved.”

Make an effort to emerge from that self-created bubble, and you’ll start to settle in. The more you communicate, the more success you’ll have, said junior cornerback Josh Mitchell.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing, talk to somebody,” he said. “They’ll tell you what to do.”

But that’s not an easy transition, especially for a defense that doesn’t have a lot of naturally vocal leaders. Eight starters from 2012 are gone. Aside from Evans and the other cornerbacks, Nebraska has one healthy player (Jason Ankrah) on its first- and second-team defenses with significant starting experience. About half of the guys weren’t on the depth chart last year.

They’re all trying to control the mental whirlwind. But they sometimes forget that talking to one another on the field can solve the problem, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.

“There’s a little bit of a mindset of worrying about yourself, making sure you get lined up and you know your assignment,” Papuchis said. “But this game, you can’t play in your box. You’ve got to make sure you’re communicating to the guy next to you, to the guys behind you. This game is about making sure all 11 guys are on the same page.”

That’s what the spring is for.

The Huskers have been split into two groups for the majority of practice in an effort to maximize learning opportunities. Meetings this past week were more about “bigger picture things,” Pelini said.

“To set a foundation and teach,” Pelini said after a recent practice. “If we just stay on the track that we’re on now, I think good things are in store for us.”

As the players’ understanding increases, their athleticism starts to show, Pelini said. But it will take time.

More growing pains are presumably ahead for the defense, such as those that made for unhappy coaches after the fifth practice of the spring, March 9.

Complicating matters is the veteran offense that lines up across the ball. Tim Beck’s unit will avoid operating at full speed to help even the playing field, though it likely will have the upper hand through the fall.

Meanwhile, the defenders are now halfway into spring practice, but they haven’t worked their way too deep into their playbook yet, said sophomore David Santos.

They’ve been emphasizing the basics, the linebacker said. For good reason.

“We’ve got a lot of things to learn,” Santos said. “Coach Bo hit on it (Wednesday). He said, ‘You guys are progressing, but we’ve got to keep going up.’ We’ve got to keep working.”

Contact the writer:


Contact the writer: Jon Nyatawa    |   402-473-9585    |  

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football and baseball, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008.



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