WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Ideally, the Nebraska defense would have come out of September and headed into Big Ten play with a settled starting lineup.
That's how it usually works, with a possible change or two due to injury or an adjustment in personnel.
Instead, auditions continued for a unit trying to shrink inflated scoring and yardage totals of the nonconference slate.
Redshirt freshmen Michael Rose and Jared Afalava made their first career starts at linebacker against Illinois. Sophomore Aaron Curry did the same at defensive tackle. LeRoy Alexander entered the revolving door at safety.
And the search goes on.
“I would have hoped that we could have kind of come to a core group of starting guys at certain spots … but that hasn't been how it's played out,” NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “At some point I'd like someone to grab those spots and kind of own them.”
Nebraska will reach the midway point of the regular season after its 11 a.m. game Saturday against Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium. It will then head into another bye week with decisions still to be made.
Papuchis said he doesn't think continuity, chemistry or communication have suffered because of the lineup changes. But he intimated that there are at least two positions where NU might benefit from stability.
One is at middle linebacker, where sophomore David Santos is set for his second consecutive start after Josh Banderas stepped in for three weeks because Santos struggled in the season opener. Will Compton started all 14 games there a year ago.
The other is at free safety, where NU has tried Harvey Jackson, Andrew Green and Alexander next to Corey Cooper. The Huskers stuck almost exclusively with seniors P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford at the back last season.
“You'd like to settle in on a MIKE, you'd like to settle in on maybe a safety opposite Coop,” Papuchis said. “But that hasn't been how it's played out.”
Papuchis said the Nebraska defensive staff is still evaluating players individually rather than looking at combinations. One reason is that NU has so many true freshmen and redshirt freshmen playing (10), and so few seniors (5).
“I understand there's a chemistry when guys play together, but really it's more of (finding out) what they can bring to the table,” Papuchis said. “Out of our MIKE 'backer we need guys that can communicate and set the front and be the leader out there. There's certain things we're looking for out of the WILL (weakside linebacker) and nickel.
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“I think we get enough guys rotated through in practice that they've all kind of played together. It's just not that big of a deal.”
Until some things get nailed down, Cooper said, NU players just need to go about their business and adjust.
“It's always ideal to have the same person next to you all the time, but I think (this) can be a good thing,” Cooper said. “You've got other guys that are getting playing experience, and when something good happens you feel good about it. Especially having the younger guys out there is going to help us in the future.”
Cooper felt comfortable playing next to Jackson at safety — they've been roommates since their freshman years. But he's also fine with playing alongside Green, a senior, and Alexander, a redshirt freshman.
“I feel comfortable with each and every one of them,” Cooper said.
The Illinois game, besides being the Huskers' first with Santos, Rose and Afalava together at linebacker, gave the team its first consistent work in its base defense.
Banderas and Nathan Gerry, both true freshmen, had gotten a chance in previous weeks to see how they meshed. Zaire Anderson also has seen snaps.
NU head coach Bo Pelini said this week that the Huskers were bound to go through growing pains at linebacker because of the youth, but said he likes the future.
Rose figures the linebackers can all find ways to contribute because they have differing skills.
“The coaches are just trying to figure out the right combinations for us to consistently do that,” Rose said. “As a unit, we just have to be prepared and be able to go in whenever we get the opportunity.”
Rose saw the benefit of Nebraska having three fifth-year seniors at linebacker a year ago, when Compton teamed with Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley. But Rose said he guesses that they didn't develop consistency overnight, either.
“They were around each other for four or five years, so they were able to build a little deeper chemistry than we have now,” Rose said. “But I think in due time we'll have the opportunity to get on that level.”
NU assistant coach Rick Kaczenski is looking at similar inexperience as he tries to push the right buttons on the defensive line. That includes weaving in two redshirt freshmen at defensive end (Avery Moss, Greg McMullen) and a redshirt freshman (Vincent Valentine) and two true freshmen at tackle (Kevin Maurice, Maliek Collins).
One thing Kaczenski has tried to do is make sure he always has a veteran lineman next to an inexperienced player.
“Especially when you get on your heels a little bit, you need an older guy that's maybe faced that adversity before to help them bow up a little bit and say, 'Hey, it's gonna be all right,' ” Kaczenski said. “Sometimes those young guys, they lose their stuff a little bit. And when they look to the right and the left, they want to see somebody that's been through it before.”
Kaczenski usually decides rotations and personnel changes on the defensive line. Just as Ross Els does with the linebackers and Terry Joseph with the secondary.
“That's the great thing about Bo: He lets you coach,” Kaczenski said. “He lets you put out there whoever you want. But a lot of it is based off feel.”