CHICAGO — Give Nebraska senior Ciante Evans a couple of hours of preseason practice and he'll be able to identify the underclassmen who did their homework this summer.
It all gets revealed on the practice field, Evans said.
Were you engaged during meetings or just hoping to keep your eyes open? Retaining concepts in the playbook or just flipping through it? Properly analyzing game film or just glaring at a screen?
“I can see it on the first day of fall camp,” Evans said.
And that might just be the most accurate indicator of the type of season Nebraska can expect from its rebuilding defense.
The coaches challenged the young group to work with the urgency of veterans this summer. Evans and the rest of the NU leaders did their best to remind the freshmen and sophomores of that expectation, which went beyond the weight room sessions and the padless drills.
It's why Nebraska limited 7-on-7 workouts to once a week and why Evans led meetings every Tuesday with the full defense. Any chance Evans could get, he'd remind those promising underclassmen to enhance their football acumen.
“I tell guys it's not really about trying to get so many reps right now. You really need to know what you have to do before you can get those reps,” Evans said. “You have to be able to know your assignments.”
Or else you get left behind. Or worse: You delay the entire unit's progression during training camp.
Back in the spring, the coaches quit installing new formations, blitz calls and coverage packages about halfway through. They wanted the defenders to grasp the system's basic elements. That was by design.
When Aug. 5 rolls around and NU steps on the practice field for the first time, coach Bo Pelini hopes there won't be much backtracking.
“If our guys are able to take the things that we did in the spring and have good recall from that, build upon that, we'll be in really good shape,” Pelini said.
He's assuming there still will be growing pains.
Defensive end Jason Ankrah and defensive tackle Thad Randle are the only players in the front seven of the projected two-deep depth chart with more than one season of significant in-game experience. There are proven guys at cornerback, but the two projected starters at safety — juniors Harvey Jackson and Corey Cooper — have hardly received any game action at those positions.
“It takes time,” Pelini said.
He's not panicking. In fact, at Big Ten media days, Pelini hinted at his intentions to incorporate new strategies. He characterized it as being more “multiple.”
Pelini spoke Thursday about using a hybrid linebacker and rush-end — perhaps it's junior college transfer Randy Gregory in that role. There are plans to call more formations with three down linemen.
But how deep into the defensive playbook Nebraska gets during the next few weeks would seem to depend on the way the defensive players perform in the first couple of days of camp.
“They've put a lot of work in in the summer, as far as getting ready,” Pelini said. “But there's a difference between being able to see it in a book, understand it and be able to apply it. That's going to be the key.”
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