LINCOLN — Nebraska's Jason Ankrah used to expend so much effort trying not to get noticed for his faults that he missed his chances to get praised for his strengths.
He just sort of blended in.
Not many mistakes. And not many difference-making moments, either.
The senior defensive end is hoping to change that this fall.
“I want to be the guy making the plays, being the leader of the defense,” Ankrah said. “I'm working toward doing that.”
He knows that it's not instantaneous, but it doesn't necessarily require a drastic transformation in his mindset.
Husker coaches have reminded Ankrah that constantly trying to force the issue rarely leads to positive results.
He's just focusing more on using his instincts, rather than obsessing about perfectly carrying out his specific responsibilities.
Ankrah said the coaches keep using the word “savvy.”
There's one other aspect of his approach, too.
“It's all about confidence out here,” Ankrah said. “When you play to the point where you have enough confidence, you can do anything.”
Ankrah's biggest self-critique from past seasons was that he played too tentatively, worried that a small mistake would fracture the entire defensive scheme.
As a part-time starter last year, Ankrah finished with 26 tackles in 14 games. Six of those stops came behind the line of scrimmage. Two were sacks.
The big hits in the backfield or the disruption off the edge was too often missing, though, because Ankrah was worrying about the potential consequences of veering from his structured assignment.
“Sometimes you don't want to go out of your responsibility to go make a play because you don't want to risk not making it, then it breaks out for a touchdown,” Ankrah said. “But I'm not worried about that anymore.”
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As he's figured out, the system's rules do provide him with some flexibility.
Last year, the fact that Nebraska had other veterans at D-end (Cameron Meredith and Eric Martin) sort of justified Ankrah's caution. He could be the steady hand while his teammates showed up in the highlights.
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said the Huskers regularly tried to feature Martin, who had 16½ tackles for loss and 8½ sacks in 2012. They'd give Martin the freedom to maneuver in pursuit of the quarterback and require the other linemen to more closely occupy running lanes.
Maybe Ankrah could emerge into that kind of role. He's showing some signs already. He has plenty more to prove, though.
“When he just plays, without thinking, he's a ton more productive,” Papuchis said. “And we've seen evidence of that so far this spring.”
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