LINCOLN — The leader of Nebraska's defense walked into the locker room before the start of practice last week and spotted a black practice jersey hanging by his nook. It didn't feel right.
Will Compton's mind started spinning.
This demanding coaching staff wouldn't reward an undeserving group — he knew that. And as a senior, he wanted this. He'd led huddle breakdowns after practice this season: “1-2-3, 'Shirts!” It's why you play defense at Nebraska, to be a Blackshirt.
Compton turned to senior Alonzo Whaley. “Hey. Let's not wear these.”
Seniors Daimion Stafford and Cameron Meredith overheard and jumped on board immediately. Senior P.J. Smith, who said he hesitated at the sight of a Blackshirt at his locker just like Compton, joined the conversation with the same frame of mind.
Next thing he knows, Compton's addressing the whole defense as a consensus was reached.
“The year before, we got them after Michigan State and came into Northwestern and kind of laid an egg,” Compton remembers telling his teammates. “And we just got whooped by Ohio State. Even though we had a bye week in between, so it seems like a while ago — we just got whooped by Ohio State.”
The traditional black practice jerseys, which have come to symbolize the virtues of this iconic Nebraska program, are so revered and so valued that Compton and his teammates didn't think they should wear them after one productive performance.
Two days prior to this locker room edict, they had forced 10 three-and-outs in a 29-28 win against Northwestern, shutting down dual-threat quarterback Kain Colter and holding the Wildcats' offense to 301 total yards.
But Michigan was next. Superstar Denard Robinson leading the Legends Division favorites into Memorial Stadium.
“We wanted to go out there and have a complete game again — and stop Denard Robinson,” Smith said. “We realized that we hadn't been that defense that we've wanted to be.”
So on Oct. 22, Nebraska's defense practiced with black jerseys still hanging in the lockers. The storied tops were returned to storage later that evening.
But by the fourth quarter of that 23-9 win over Michigan Saturday, Compton and the guys were on the sidelines hollering for the Nebraska equipment staff to unpack the Blackshirts. They celebrated with them in the locker room. Eric Martin wore his home.
And on Monday, a week after the players decided they weren't worthy of distinction, 11 Blackshirts roamed the practice field with renewed confidence. Compton, Whaley and Sean Fisher at linebacker. Martin, Meredith, Baker Steinkuhler and Jason Ankrah up front. Smith, Stafford, Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste on the back end.
“You have to earn them,” Meredith said. “It means a lot to us, especially as a defensive player with all the great defensive players that have been through here.”
Maintaining that standard is the challenge going forward, though.
Nebraska next travels to Michigan State, which managed just 187 yards of total offense in a 24-3 Husker blowout in Lincoln last year.
The starting quarterback, the two best wide receivers and a running back off that MSU offense were all selected in April's NFL draft — but junior running back Le'Veon Bell is still there, now the Spartans' centerpiece. He averages 27.4 carries per game, which ranks second among the nation's top 100 running backs. He's tied for the second-most receptions on the team with 29.
Tackling him is the key, though it won't be easy.
“You just can't go out there with an arm tackle,” Smith said. “We have to put our shoulder on him, wrap up and keep running our feet.”
But the NU players seem to think that a downhill style attack best fits Nebraska's makeup. The Husker defense will regularly have eight seniors on the field Saturday against MSU's traditional sets.
“When you pack us in and try to run it, nobody's really had success,” Whaley said.
That's a prideful veteran talking. Nebraska's 82nd nationally in run defense, allowing 176.3 yards per game — granted, most of its matchups have been against spread offenses.
The NU unit has seemed to renew its commitment, though, since dropping a disappointing 63-38 game at Ohio State, so much so that it caught defensive coordinator John Papuchis off guard last week.
He was the one who had staffers place the black jerseys in the Husker locker room. He stood out on the practice field on Oct. 22, waiting to see how his first-string unit looked in black.
The players took a different tone. Papuchis liked it.
This year's defense was expected to be defined more by its experience and leadership than its talent and ability, but those intangible attributes apparently were never as evident as they were last week.
“(Papuchis) said it himself: That was more surprising than anything he's seen since he's been here. Guys actually turning in the Blackshirts,” Whaley said. “That's what we work for. You set out to be a great defense — then you can earn those, and walk around with pride and wear those.”
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