September 23, 2010

Thursday notebook: Blackshirts awarded

After three straight weeks of stellar defensive play to open the season, Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini and his staff finally felt it was time to reward their defense for their efforts.


On Thursday, 12 players received the coveted Blackshirt practice jersey for the first time this year. Those 12 consisted of defensive linemen Pierre Allen, Cameron Meredith, Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler; linebackers Lavonte David and Eric Martin; and defensive backs Prince Amukamara, Alfonzo Dennard, P.J. Smith, DeJon Gomes, Rickey Thenarse and Eric Hagg.


As usual, Pelini did his best to downplay the significance of the Blackshirts to the media following Thursday's practice. He did say that he respects the long standing tradition, and he just felt the time was right to hand them out this week.


"It's a tradition, and it's one that I believe in," Pelini said. "You pick the time you think is right. Enough said, I guess."


The decision to hand out the Blackshirts came a bit earlier than many had expected, as the staff waited all the way until after the fifth game against Kansas last season and after the 10th game against Missouri in 2008.


Players weren't available to media following Thursday's practice, but it was clear the 12 recipients had an extra bounce in their step as they walked off the practice field. Of the 12, Meredith, Steinkuhler, David and Martin all earned Blackshirts for the first time.


- Robin Washut












Thursday practice takes
KSU tickets going fast: If you're thinking about heading down to Manhattan, Kan., for Nebraska's Oct. 7 Big 12 Conference opener against Kansas State, you better act quickly. The NU ticket office announced that it only has approximately 150 tickets remaining for sale for the game. The tickets are $75 each and can be purchased in person at the Nebraska Athletic Ticket Office or by calling 1-800-8-BIG RED.

Other Blackshirts coming? Aside from the 12 players who earned their Blackshirts on Thursday, there were a few others who could be considered deserving candidates as well. In particular, guys like defensive tackle Terrence Moore, linebacker Alonzo Whaley and Anthony West have all played big roles on Nebraska's defense this season. Seeing as it's still early in the season, don't be surprised if at least one of those guys gets a Blackshirt by the end of the year. Additionally, kicker/punter Alex Henery, who earned a Blackshirt last year, was left off the list as well.


Injury report: Junior offensive tackle Marcel Jones (back) will miss his fourth straight game on Saturday, but head coach Bo Pelini said he was hopeful Jones would be ready to return to action when the Huskers travel to Kansas State in two weeks. Other than Jones, Pelini said the Huskers were as healthy as could be.

What's on tap next: The Nebraska football team practiced in helmets only inside the Hawks Championship Center and on the fields north of Memorial Stadium on Thursday. The Huskers will hold a brief walk-thru session on Friday before Saturday's homecoming game against South Dakota State at 6 p.m.



Carl breaks down NU's defense


There haven't been many opposing offenses that have been able to get the best of Nebraska's defense the past three years.


In fact, going back to last year's 31-10 loss to Texas Tech, one could argue none of the Huskers' past 11 opponents have been able to figure out how to move the ball consistently against NU.


Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini took some time to give some insight into he and Bo's defensive philosophy and just exactly what it is that makes their scheme so difficult for offenses to work against.


More than anything, he said the three years of experience the players have had in the system is finally starting to translate into success on the field.


"With our guys, experience is invaluable," Carl Pelini said. "Our DBs have been essentially a group for three years now. There's so much communication going on before and during plays, things that weren't happening three years ago that now they're to the point where it's like having assistant coaches out there. I don't know, it's just starting to finally come together for us where there's truly an understanding. But we thought that coming into this year. We thought Year 3 is when your guys really start to get what you're teaching, and they're just very comfortable with it."


Many fans and media members have tried to dissect Nebraska's defensive scheme the past three years, but few have truly been able to grasp all the nuances that make it so unique in college football today.


For one, Carl Pelini insists that the Huskers hardly ever run man-to-man coverage, contrary to what many seem to think.


"We don't play a lot of man," Pelini said. "I don't know where that keeps coming from. We play a match-up style of zone, which is very different from man-to-man coverage. It does put (the cornerbacks) on an island sometimes, but we try to provide them help when we need it. It allows them to be really aggressive on certain things knowing that they've got help.


"Man, to me and us as a staff, doesn't lead to a lot of big plays because it forces you a lot of times to play with your back to the line of scrimmage. I think there's kind of some misinformation out there about how much man we actually play. We play man techniques, but we play in a zone."


Along with the secondary constantly fluctuating its coverages based on match-ups, Pelini said the pressure of the defensive line and other blitzers is what really helps cause the biggest problems for opposing quarterbacks.


"I think it creates an uncomfortable feeling for a quarterback, I really do," he said. "A lot of times it creates a sense of panic when there (isn't an open passing window), and you'll see guys step into a sack not because the pressure's great but because he feels the pocket collapsing, people are covered and he steps right into our arms. We just work really hard at that scheme, and hopefully we continue to confuse people, if that's what it is."


- Robin Washut


More star DBs in the making?


Nebraska has one of the best luxuries in football with two shutdown cornerbacks and potential NFL draft picks in Amukamara and Dennard.


However, with this being Amukamara's senior year and Dennard, a junior, possibly forgoing his senior season and declaring for the draft this April, the cornerback position could take a huge hit next year.


Have no fear, NU defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders says. The Huskers have a couple more young corners ready to pick up right where Amukamara and Dennard leave off.


"I think we've got a couple young guys in the making, absolutely," Sanders said. "We have those athletes. I'll tell you what, Ciante Evans and Lazarri Middleton - we've got some guys coming up."


Evans has made his presence felt since the day he set foot on campus, as the true freshman from Arlington, Texas, entered the season as the No. 2 left cornerback behind Amukamara, and he's played in all three games so far.


Middleton, a redshirt freshman, is in his second year in the program after coming to NU as a three-star recruit out of Long Beach, Calif. He has yet to see any game action this season, but Sanders said he hasn't even scratched the surface on his potential yet.


But wait, there's more.


According to Sanders, Nebraska also has a pair of young safeties on pace to make a big impact on the defense next season. After the Huskers lose three of their top four safeties to graduation next year, Sanders said freshmen Cory Cooper and Harvey Jackson will both be counted on to contribute and maybe even start next season.


"Oh yeah, they need to step up," Sanders said. "That's why they came here. They saw down the pipe how big of a factor they could be for this program. We're going to continue to recruit safeties, but those two guys could be a big factor for us."


While both Cooper and Jackson are redshirting this year, Sanders said he's still seen more than enough from them in practice to feel very good about the future of the safety position.


With the two currently working on the scout team defense, Sanders said he's actually had to tell Cooper and Jackson to ease up from dishing out so many hard hits against the top offensive units.


"They've been physical on the scout team," Sanders said. "I've actually had to back them up to make sure our offense can get the look that they're looking for. Those guys yesterday gave a couple shots, and we want to make sure that we protect our team. I don't want to take away their aggressiveness, but they've got to be smarter. But they're young and enthusiastic, and that's what you like to see."


- Robin Washut


Sirles flourishing after redshirt season


At one point early on last season, offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles was on pace to play right away as a true freshman.


However, a midseason injury sidelined him for a month and erased any chance of him making an immediate impact.


Turns out, not playing last year just might have been the best thing that could have happened to him.


With a full year to adjust to the college game and improve both his physical strength and knowledge of Nebraska's offense, Sirles said he came into the season a significantly improved player.


The fact that the coaching staff was impressed with his game enough to consider playing him as a true freshman didn't hurt his confidence this fall either.


"That gave me extra confidence that they had the confidence in me last year," Sirles said. "Last year, I was like 'if they need me to play, I can play.' This year, I felt like I'm ready to play… I feel like I'm ready to play, and now it's like I've played, now it's time to become a dominant force."


That confidence was blatantly apparent during the offseason, as Sirles said he turned 18 pounds of fat into 17 pounds of muscle over the past year.


This fall, he had to compete with heralded junior college transfer Jermarcus Hardrick for the starting left tackle job. Though many had already written in Hardrick as the starter even before the start of fall camp, Sirles played well enough to win the job and hold it through the first three weeks of the season.


Sirles said that competition with Hardrick has been ongoing since spring practice, and it's only made him that much better knowing he could easily lose his starting spot if he lets up one bit.


"You can't take an off-day or the guy will jump you," he said. "I mean, me and Yoshi shared reps all through camp, and we still do share reps. It still keeps me on my toes. I want to continue to run and know that he's behind me. I want to look over my shoulder, and when he's still there that pushes both of us. It pushes him to come catch me and it pushes me to stay ahead of him. I think that continues to make both of us better players."


- Robin Washut


Quick hits


***After missing parts of the past two seasons due to injuries, Bo Pelini said Thenarse has bounced back exceptionally this season to earn his Blackshirt.


"I think he has played well," Pelini said. "I think he still has to work on some consistency at times. He has to make sure he doesn't have any mental lapses. I think he has come a long way. Having sat out the whole year last year and came back, I think he has come back strong and I think he is playing some good football but I think the best is still ahead of him."


***Pelini said he's been very pleased with the downfield blocking of his receivers and tight ends this season.


"I think they're doing well," he said. "Big plays in the run game don't happen if you're not blocking down the field. You look at (Roy Helu's) touchdown the other day, BK (Brandon Kinnie) did a heck of a job on the corner and helped spring Roy. A lot of that is about effort. Obviously technique plays a part of it, but getting down, not being lazy and making sure you find people down the field. They've done a good job of it."


***Pelini also said he doubted junior right tackle Marcel Jones (back) would play on Saturday, saying the staff wanted to take this week and the bye week to get him fully rested in time for the start of Big 12 play.


"He could (play), but we don't think we're going to use him," Pelini said. "He's getting some rest, some needed rest, and hopefully he'll be back next week… He could be practicing right now, but he needed a little bit of extra time where we kind of laid out a couple of weeks ago that this would be the best time (to rest him)."


***Carl Pelini said Steinkuhler has played well so far in his first season as a starter, as evidenced by his Blackshirt, but he's still far from a finished product.


"Baker is a smart football player," Pelini said. "He watches a lot of film, he understands his opponents, and he's been really physical in there. He's done a great job. He gets pressure in the passing game, and he plays the run very well, so he's doing well. But again, for him, game experience is invaluable, and the more snaps he gets he's just going to keep getting better. He's still a baby."

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