LINCOLN — If you’re wrong, be loud about it.
That’s been the message to members of Nebraska’s defense, a unit in search of players to bark out on-field orders with confidence, while also motivating and encouraging as much as possible between plays and on the sideline.
The Husker coaches have been busy tinkering with schemes, lineups and in-game management — whatever might help a defense allowing a league-worst 463.8 yards per game. But the emergence of vocal leaders might help the group reach its potential more quickly.
“We need a field general,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “Someone who’s going to help get people lined up. And until we get that, we’re not going to be the defense we want to be.”
It starts at middle linebacker, the position Papuchis was specifically referring to when he spoke after practice Wednesday and announced the plea for player-driven assertiveness.
Nebraska had that persona in Phillip Dillard (2009), Lavonte David (2010) and Will Compton (2011 and 2012). All three carried a dynamic presence on and off the field, aware of their flaws but rarely distracted by them.
But adversity shaped their demeanor over time — Dillard was a fourth-stringer during his final offseason, David battled through junior college and Compton dealt with injury.
A similar growth process is ongoing for sophomore David Santos and freshman Josh Banderas.
Four games in, those top contenders for playing time at middle linebacker have taken turns as the No. 1 guy. Redshirt freshman Michael Rose played some there, too. Santos will likely get another shot as the starter against Illinois on Saturday.
Each has potential, but none has found a comfort level in a role that carries more pre-snap responsibility than any other spot in this defense.
But Papuchis said the challenge for them now is not to focus solely on working tirelessly to settle in. They have to lead while they’re still uncomfortable.
“I think sometimes when you’re worried about knowing what to do yourself, it’s hard to direct somebody else,” Papuchis said. “Unfortunately for us, at (middle linebacker), that can’t be the way you look at it. You’ve got to take charge of everyone else first and worry about yourself second.”
And they’re not alone. Other players on the defense are being challenged in a similar fashion.
Senior Ciante Evans let a frustrating second-half performance against UCLA get in the way of his ability to inspire other defenders, according to secondary coach Terry Joseph.
“A big thing about being the captain and the playmaker is your body language — because no matter what, you have to exude positive energy,” Joseph said.
Of the 30 players listed on Nebraska’s depth chart, 21 hadn’t played significant snaps at this level before this season. And Evans is one of five seniors who are out there regularly on defense.
“You’ve got to take that responsibility,” Joseph said.
Junior Corey Cooper is someone who’s apparently starting to get that. He was named a captain, by coach Bo Pelini, for the South Dakota State game (in place of the injured Taylor Martinez).
But at some point, the young players can’t be waiting on someone else to help them through the tough times, according to defensive end Avery Moss. It’s up to the individual to stay mentally tough.
“For me, at least, it’s about looking within yourself and getting that confidence in yourself,” Moss said. “Because if someone says something and you don’t have confidence in yourself, it doesn’t matter what that person’s going to say. It’s not going to help you because it’s self-inflicted.”