October 31, 2011

Monday notebook: Blackshirts finally make debut

The day Nebraska's defense had been waiting for all season finally came, as the famed Blackshirts were officially passed out prior to Monday's practice.


After two and a half games of dominant defensive football, beginning in the second half against Ohio State and on through Saturday's dismantling of Michigan State, head coach Bo Pelini he had and his staff finally felt the unit had earned the right to wear the most talked about practice jerseys in college football.


"I put a lot of stock into practice more than what happens on Saturday," Pelini said. "It's a culmination of how you practice and prepare and timing. I really don't care what people outside think about when or why you should give them out. It is something you talk about as a staff and when you feel like the time is right, you go for it."


There were 20 confirmed Blackshirt recipients, marking the most ever in recent memory.


Defensive ends Cameron Meredith, Jason Ankran, Josh Williams and Eric Martin; defensive tackles Baker Steinkuhler, Terrence Moore, Thaddeus Randle and Chase Rome; linebackers Lavonte David, Will Compton and Sean Fisher; and defensive backs Alfonzo Dennard, Ciante Evans, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Andrew Green, Daimion Stafford, Austin Cassidy, P.J. Smith, Lance Thorell and Justin Blatchford were the 20 players seen wearing Blackshirts at Monday's practice.


"It felt like an honor to be able to wear a black jersey today, because it shows that our defense has come a long way," Dennard said. "Everybody had been doubting us, so we're just trying to show the world that our defense is back."


Pelini has taken plenty of criticism over the years for his decision to wait on passing out the Blackshirts until later in the season. Since the tradition started back in the 1960s under former head coach Bob Devaney, the jerseys had been handed out before the season as a way to distinguish the 11 defensive starters.


When Pelini took over in 2008, though, he opted to wait until his defense earned their Blackshirts with strong play on the field. After holding the Spartans to just three points and 187 yards of total offense, he felt this week was the time to break them out.


"I said when I first got back here and I wasn't the coach at the time - it was Frank (Solich) - and I said that the Blackshirts should be earned," Pelini said. "It isn't something simple that should be granted. We talked a lot last week as a whole football team about how we play to a certain standard.


"To me, that means practicing to a certain standard. Have we reached the standard that we want? No, we haven't. But when you start heading in that direction, preparing well and doing the right things, to me, that is a signal that guys get it."


Dennard said he actually preferred waiting to get a Blackshirt because it gave players a goal to attain each season, and the only way to do it was to perform everyday in practice and on game days.


"I feel like we've got to earn the Blackshirts, because it's a statement," Dennard said. "If he had given it to us early in the season, we weren't doing a very good job, so it wouldn't mean anything."


- Robin Washut


Huskers not letting up after big win


One of the biggest problems for Michigan State last week was that it was trying to stay fired up and focused after pulling two straight emotional victories over rivals Michigan and Wisconsin.


Instead, they came out flat and got run over by a much more inspired Husker squad.


This week, Nebraska is on the other side of the spectrum. The early line on this week's home game against Northwestern opened at 19 points, and the Wildcats are 3-5 overall and just 1-4 in the Big Ten this season.


While it may seem like NU is the clear favorite this weekend, the players and coaches insist that the team is just as focused on Northwestern as they have been the past three weeks.


"Our approach on a Monday is no different than had we lost the other day," Pelini said. "You can only control what is in front of you right now. Our guys' mindset is to look at the good things and learn from them and look at the things you need to do better. Hopefully, we can grow from the things we didn't do so well. You hope each week you make progress and get a little better.


"I think this week is going to be a tremendous challenge for us -- to come back emotionally after all the hype surrounding that game for a lot of reasons. The last thing you want to do is take a deep breath here now. You want to put your foot on the gas pedal and keep going. That is a challenge for college students and kids that tend to read the Internet and papers. We have not arrived. We have a lot ahead of us to keep getting better."


Pelini has emphasized the importance of staying focused on the process for the past four seasons, and it looks like it's starting to fully set in with NU's players. Redshirt freshman wide receiver Kenny Bell said the team has fully bought into Pelini's one-game-at-a-time approach, which would be as important as ever in a week like this.


"I think (the coaching staff's) influence is the best thing for our football team," Bell said. "I think we have the same mindset as our coaches. It's on to the next one. That was a cool win. It was fun, but in hindsight now it doesn't mean anything. We've got to move on to the next one and go beat Northwestern this week.


"I don't think we'll ever be comfortable unless we're hoisting that crystal ball at 14-0 at the end of the year, so absolutely not. Our mentality is we've got a lot of room for improvement to make."


- Robin Washut


Burkhead to get much needed break


If anyone on the team earned a few plays off this week in practice, it's junior running back Rex Burkhead.


After his workhorse 35 carries against Michigan State on Saturday, Burkhead said his legs were still pretty sore from the beating he took in the win, but overall said he felt OK. He added that the cramps in his calves that had him down on the ground for a few minutes in the third quarter still had his muscles a little tight, but he expected to be good to go by the Northwestern game.


"A little sore," Burkhead said. "I'm not going to lie. But we came out with a win, so that's always a good feeling. It makes you not a sore as you think you would be."


While Burkhead may say he's ready to get back to work this week, Pelini said he had no intention of putting any more unnecessary work on his star running back than he needed to, especially early on in the week.


"He is actually feeling pretty good today, but like I said, he had 35 rushes and did what he did," Pelini said. "We will limit him, especially early in this week. We might have to put handcuffs on him to get him out of there but we will do that."


Burkhead said he's been spending a lot of time in the cold tub and massaging his legs in order to work out the stiffness. Being the dedicated player he is, though, Burkhead said it would be tough not doing as much in practice as he normally does, but he was glad the three freshmen backs behind him would get a chance to get a few more reps in his place.


"Of course you want to be out there," he said. "Every chance you get, every rep you get is a chance to get better. It's tough to understand that. I respect the coaches' decision. There is time where you need rest. After you get a ton of reps in a game or practice, you maybe need it a little bit more. I love being out there. I love competing and playing with the guys, so it's kind of tough to stay back at times."


As if he couldn't be any nicer or humble, Burkhead even apologized to reporters for being late to Saturday's post-game press conference because he went straight to the cold tub.


That's what makes Rex Burkhead who he is, though. That, and being able to put an entire offense on his shoulders and come back ready for more the next week.


"I don't know how Rex Burkhead is even moving, man," Bell said. "I don't think the guy sleeps. I think he goes home and plugs himself into the wall and charges. There's something wrong with that guy. He's a freak."


- Robin Washut


Quick hits


***Quarterback Taylor Martinez said he jammed his right thumb at the beginning of the third quarter on Saturday, which forced him to hand the ball off with his left hand at times. He said it was already feeling better, and he would be fine for this week's game against Northwestern.


***Martinez was also asked about the criticism he's received over the past two years for his unconventional throwing motion, and he said he's actually been told by opposing players and coaches that he has one of the quickest throwing releases of any quarterback in the country.


"I think I probably have one of the quickest releases in the nation," Martinez said. "That's what a lot of coaches have told me so far. No matter how the ball gets there, your release is the main thing about your throwing motion."


***Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini wasn't all that excited about the Blackshirts being handed out Monday, saying he wished the jerseys were not awarded based on performance. He said the whole thing is more of a distraction than anything, and he would rather the team be strictly focused on getting ready for Northwestern.


"It means a lot, I guess," Pelini said. "Part of me wishes we never would've tied it into performance. Right now I'm worried about Northwestern. I'm not worried about who's wearing what practice jersey."


***Jean-Baptiste said the tendonitis in his knee felt much better than it did on Saturday, and he fully practiced on Monday. He said the injury would likely be something he dealt with for the rest of the year, but he didn't expect it to make him miss any more time.


"I felt way better than last week," Jean-Baptiste said. "Way better. It's coming around, so I should be good."


***Carl Pelini said Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa was one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten and would be a huge challenge for Nebraska's defense because of his decision making and mobility in the pocket.


"I think he's close to, if not the best quarterback we've faced this year," Pelini He can do it with his feet, makes great decisions, has a quick trigger, knows the offense, handles the ball very well, rides backs, really does a nice job with his fakes. I mean, he's the complete package. He's a difficult guy to defend, and we're going to have to do a great job and be very disciplined to stop him."


***Carl Pelini said NU could use a lot of what they did on defense in the Big 12 against Northwestern's spread offense, saying the Wildcats do a lot of the same things Big 12 teams ran last season. Obviously Northwestern has a few unique wrinkles to its offense, and Pelini credited the Wildcats for being one of the first teams to introduce the spread to college football.


***Jermarcus Hardrick said Nebraska couldn't "get caught drinking the Kool-Aid" following Saturday's big win over Michigan State. He said too many teams start feeling too good about themselves after emotional wins and then come out flat the following week.

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