LINCOLN — Nate Gerry can sprint from one end zone to the other in a little more than 10 seconds.
So it's no wonder the Nebraska football coaches are working so diligently to prepare the freshman to play right away. At safety. At linebacker. At dime back. Somewhere.
One could apply similar reasoning to the rapid rise of freshman linebacker Josh Banderas, a 6-foot-2, 225-pounder who ran the 110-meter hurdles in 15.12 seconds at state track last spring.
Sophomore cornerback Daniel Davie finished a 100-meter dash in 10.7 seconds two years ago. Freshman Maliek Collins doesn't have that kind of quickness, but the defensive tackle boasts the agility and explosiveness required to go undefeated in his senior season of high school wrestling.
There's sophomore safety Charles Jackson, who's developed a reputation for flying to the football and laying out ball carriers. There's newcomer Randy Gregory, a 6-foot-6, 255-pound defensive end with top-shelf athleticism who could be a terror off the edge.
It's these new faces who represent the changing makeup of Nebraska's defense. Regardless of whether they play this season — they all have a shot — they're the future of an approach aimed to showcase speed, as coach Bo Pelini continues to find ways to better match up with ever-changing offenses.
Pelini hasn't wanted to reveal any secrets during preseason practice, choosing instead to insert a disclaimer about the potential speed bumps caused by mental immaturity.
“There's a lot that goes into speed on defense,” Pelini said. “There's not only the athleticism, it's being able to play fast and know what you're doing. I think we're more athletic in some spots.”
And he's not ready to acknowledge that Nebraska made some drastic philosophy shift, either.
“Speed's important,” Pelini said. “We always try to have guys that can run, with quickness and speed on our team. Nothing's changed as far as that's concerned.”
He has known for some time that the game is evolving.
Offenses averaged 29.5 points per game last season, breaking a record set in 2007 (28.4). An average of 28.3 points was scored in 2011.
The Huskers are buying into that trend, too, shifting in 2010 to a no-huddle, fast-paced style that this year could be one of the most effective attacks in the country.
Why? The logic isn't complicated. More plays, more points, more wins. Only four of the 24 teams that snapped the ball at least 77 times per game last season finished with losing records.
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That does, however, result in an extra workload for those teams' defenses. The lightning-quick offense is snapping the football with 20 seconds on the play clock, allowing opponents more opportunities to take snaps of their own.
Whether offenses are scoring quickly or punting after a three-and-out, the brief possessions don't allow much time for the defenders to recharge. Or strategize. Or refocus.
Defenses on teams defined by their high-scoring offense (like Oregon and Oklahoma State) are not necessarily perceived to be built on brute strength, specifically designed to overpower. They're finesse units, conditioned daily in practice to handle the up-tempo nature of their own offenses.
But consistent success is often difficult to achieve. Among the 10 teams that had the most snaps per game last year, their scoring defenses ranked an average of 84th nationally. (Oregon was highest at No. 25.)
Nebraska ran an average of 74.3 plays per game last season, ranking 34th. The Husker defense allowed 27.6 points per game (58th).
But the Huskers have a different defense now. Eight senior starters ended their careers in January. Ever since, the tone regarding the unit seems to have shifted.
as Nebraska prepared for its 2011 move to the Big Ten, Pelini and the staff crafted a plan to match up with offenses that didn't pass as often as those in the sideline-to-sideline Big 12. Instead, these new opponents used multiple tight ends and running backs at the same time in a pro-style attack, which would require more depth at linebacker, more strength up front and fewer opportunities for defensive backs. That was the theory, anyway.
There are different buzzwords in Lincoln now.
Ľ “We look good because we're more athletic (on the D-line),” defensive end Jason Ankrah said.
Ľ Said nickel back Ciante Evans: “I think we're fast all over the place. Up front, at linebacker. Especially in the secondary. A fast group of guys.”
Ľ The key to football, according to cornerback Mo Seisay, is simple: Speed. “And that's what we definitely have in the secondary. I'm sure that's going to help us out.”
Ľ “We're the most athletic we've been at linebacker since we got here five years ago,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said at a speaking event in July.
Ľ Senior receiver Quincy Enunwa was impressed with the young linebackers in the spring. “They all have great tangibles. Speed, strength,” he said at Big Ten media days. “There's not huge size, but you don't always need that in a linebacker as long as you can fill the gaps, make plays.”
Nebraska's challenge is to mold this on-paper talent into productivity on the field.
It won't be easy in this college football climate. But Pelini's confident he has the pieces.
What's it take to be successful? Speed or strength? What matters more?
“You've got to have good football players,” Pelini said.