Ralph Brown remembers the Tunnel Walk — they all remember that.
He recalls coming out of the South Stadium hallway and walking between the rope lines. Teammates in front of him jumped and yelled and high-fived the fans. Teammates behind him slapped him on the shoulder pads. Brown was calm.
Until his cleats squished the turf. Until he saw 75,590 fans. Until it hit him that a week shy of his 18th birthday, he was about to become the first true freshman position player in 50 years to start for Nebraska, the two-time defending national champions.
“Whoa, here it is,” Brown remembers thinking, “You're about to start on national television.”
Every Husker experiences his first career game. Most perform in relative anonymity, getting their feet wet on kickoffs or late in the fourth quarter. But some, like Ralph Brown, are shoved into the deep end of the pool.
Brown recalls a route he'd never seen before. A Michigan State receiver ran at him and stuttered his feet. Brown diagnosed a “go” route and took off deep. The receiver turned back to the quarterback. A stutter and stop?
“So I'm like, OK, this is what college football is all about.”
Michigan State picked on Brown that day, but Nebraska won, 55-14. Its defense scored two touchdowns.
Seventeen years later, the Blackshirts are off to a much uglier start. One big reason is the sheer volume of defensive newcomers.
Nebraska has several roster positions with adequate depth: wide receiver, running back, offensive line, cornerback. But the front seven has been stung by two or three consecutive cycles of A) lackluster recruiting; B) shoddy player development; C) crummy luck or D) all of the above.
Look, for instance, at the defensive line recruits of 2010: Tobi Okuyemi, Jay Guy, Chase Rome, Walker Ashburn and Donovan Vestal. Those are supposed to be your seniors and redshirt juniors. None played a single down against Wyoming. Their void leaves 18- and 19-year-olds like Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice to compete against opponents' 21- and 22-year-olds.
Of the 17 players listed on Nebraska's depth chart at defensive line and linebacker, 10 had never played a Division I game before Saturday. Ten!
That doesn't count Avery Moss or Zaire Anderson, who entered the season with three career games. Or Aaron Curry, who had played in four. Or Brodrick Nickens, an ex-offensive lineman who'd never played a game on defense.
This is almost certainly the least experienced front seven Nebraska has ever issued. And if the Huskers fall short of a division championship, the D-line and linebackers will likely be the reason why.
(Let me put it a slightly more optimistic way: If the Blackshirts reach their destination in 2013, you can credit the dramatic progress of guys who played their first college games against Wyoming.)
What was it like inside the helmet of Nate Gerry or Randy Gregory or Vincent Valentine last Saturday? Ask those who remember. Even for All-Americans like Trev Alberts, the introduction to college football was overwhelming.
“I just remember running out on the field, how physically exhausted I was,” said Alberts, who broke in as a redshirt freshman against Baylor in 1990. “I had nothing. My legs were like Jell-O.”
Jamel Williams, who saw his first action as a sophomore in the 1994 Kickoff Classic, said the first two or three plays, your mind basically forgets everything it learned in fall camp.
“You're just running around like a chicken with your head cut off,” Williams said.
Chris Kelsay and his brother, Chad, were NU guest coaches last Saturday. They ate the pregame meal with the team, rode with the Huskers to Memorial Stadium, observed all the rituals. Chris didn't expect 600 yards, but he had a feeling youth and inexperience would cause problems.
“There's really no preparation,” said Kelsay, who played his first game at Iowa in 1999. “They can show you a video, they can have veterans or coaching staff talk to you and tell you what's it going to be like. But you can't truly understand it until you actually get out there, go through the preparation in pregame and then take the field at game time.”
The key, former defensive end Zach Potter said, is “calming yourself down.” Controlling the adrenaline rush is one challenge. But then there are the expectations. You know that friends and family — not to mention a few million Husker fans — are counting on you.
“There's so many firsts,” said Potter, whose first game was Maine 2005. “Your first Tunnel Walk, your first play, your first tackle, your first time going against a live opponent. ... It's definitely not the easiest thing in the world.”
Ex-Huskers agree that this generation's 18- and 19-year-olds are far more prepared physically and mentally for Saturday afternoons. But Nebraska's newcomers face obstacles past generations didn't.
Jamel Williams learned how to play the game against Pacific, when the halftime score was 49-0. The scoreboard covered up his mistakes. Josh Banderas doesn't have that luxury.
Chris Kelsay learned how to play the game next to Kyle Vanden Bosch and Steve Warren. They covered up his mistakes. Greg McMullen doesn't have that luxury.
These newcomers must learn in tight ballgames without All-America mentors. Every gaffe will be noticed and analyzed.
“When you have so many young players, there's going to be some harsh realities that you have to accept,” Brown said.
Williams said the NU coaching staff should find ways to simplify. Cut down on the calls. Play more base defense. Enable the freshmen to quiet their minds. Too often he saw defenders looking at the sideline as Wyoming was preparing to snap the ball.
“The younger kids are thinking a lot,” Williams said. “That's slowing them down. They're not flying around playing ball.”
Saturday offers a mulligan. A chance to show that once a chicken finds his head, he isn't so crazy after all.
In his third career game, Zach Potter blocked what would have been Pittsburgh's game-winning field goal. In game four, Trev Alberts got his first sack. In game eight, Ralph Brown took an interception back for a touchdown. Things get easier, whether you're a future pro or not.
The Blackshirts gave up 602 yards to Wyoming. Six hundred and two!
But Southern Mississippi starts at zero.