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New guys in new roles: Nebraska's "reset" to extend to playing time

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Marques Buford on blocking out news on coaching changes

LINCOLN – New guys in new roles. Nebraska was already living the philosophy in its first press conference following an eventful bye week.

No captains spoke Tuesday on the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium to talk about Indiana and coaching changes. Quarterback Casey Thompson didn’t make an appearance. Nor did any senior.

Instead two former or current in-state walk-ons, a first-time sophomore defensive starter and the starting punter took the podium to discuss the mental and physical reset provided by a Saturday without a game.

On a week when new Husker leaders like interim coach Mickey Joseph and defensive coordinator Bill Busch were reevaluating everything, the shuffling began with media responsibilities discussing the Hoosiers and the state of the team as it begins a stretch of eight straight Big Ten games.

“So much has gone on through the first four weeks of the season,” punter Brian Buschini said. “It kind of feels like, ‘Holy cow, the season has been going on forever.’ But it hasn’t. We’re only a third of the way through. … We’re 0-1 in Big Ten play and the top team is 1-0. We have all our goals out there in front of us.”

The Huskers know they won’t reach them residing in a status quo that includes one of the worst statistical defenses at the FBS level, a hot-and-cold offense and a special teams unit that hasn’t made a critical mistake but – outside of punting – has yet to be an asset either.

What can Nebraska change midstream? Not roster makeup. Not major culture pieces. Not big-picture schemes. What it can do is give other players on the depth chart – those on the cusp of meaningful snaps – a chance to show what they can do.

“We’ve got to find those guys,” Joseph said. “We’re going to go those young kids to see if they can get it done. If they can get it done, we’ll give them some reps on Saturday. But they’ve been great.”

Nebraska offered hints at who some of those could be Monday with a two-deep riddled with relatively minor tweaks. Joseph named a couple in freshmen defensive backs Malcolm Hartzog and Jaeden Gould. The former moves into a co-No. 2 role at cornerback with Braxton Clark behind starter Tommi Hill. The latter ascends to the third line at safety with starter Myles Farmer and backup DeShon Singleton ahead of him.

Starting safety Marques Buford grinned at the mention of each of his position mates. He often tells Gould – a former four-star recruit from New Jersey – how much he reminds Buford of himself. How quickly he learned the defense. How adaptive he is. Hartzog is the same way after an under-the-radar recruiting process brought him from rural Mississippi to Nebraska.

“They take all the criticism and they take it with their head up high,” Buford said.

Receiver Brody Belt said he’s seen teammates respond “really well” in the days since Joseph vowed Nebraska would take a fresh, deep look within its roster for more help. Belt himself walked on out of Millard West in 2018 and worked his way into larger roles later in his career. Those moments to impress new decision-makers don’t come along often.

“Everyone’s kind of on their toes hoping they make the right plays, which is good for us because we need more guys to step up to fill in those roles,” Belt said. “We can’t have guys playing 80, 90 snaps a game. We gotta have guys that can fill in.”

A list of candidates could fit that description Saturday. Defensive lineman Colton Feist said position mate Nash Hutmacher could be playing more, while reserves like Ru’Quan Buckley and Marquis Black – neither of whom have appeared in a game yet this season – deserve a chance too. Omar Brown (a former defensive back-turned No. 2 nickel), Singleton and transfer corner Brandon Moore (No. 2 behind starter Quinton Newsome) are other defenders in elevated on-paper roles. Edge rushers Jimari Butler and Blaise Gunnerson could see expanded time beyond special teams.

Meanwhile, Joseph called running back Gabe Ervin a “high-character kid” who didn’t sulk as he waited for his opportunity and now will have it as backup to Anthony Grant following the season-ending injury to Ajay Allen. Left guard Ethan Piper will make his first start in nearly a year within an O-line still finding its footing.

Special teams may see some new faces as well under newly-elevated coordinator Joey Connors.

“There’s a bunch of kids who’ve come in and freshmen who have really put their name out there,” Buschini said. “They deserve to play on Saturdays and they will.”

The reset – as much of one as there can be in late September – is underway. As the NU national coaching search continues, Joseph said the next eight games are the job interview for the staff and himself. They are the chance for players to show what they can do. An opportunity for everyone within the program to win games.

“Nobody’s spot is secure, even though we’re heading into the fifth week,” Buford said. “Everybody still has to grind like you’re trying to earn your spot. Everybody’s been taking it great, feeding off each other’s energy.”

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