LINCOLN — Nebraska hopes that a week not focused on game planning will benefit a team working to reach its potential.
The Huskers spent extended time in individual drills Wednesday, emphasizing fundamentals. They suited up in full pads and tackled one another more than usual — during scout team work and during the top unit's game-like situations. They conducted a live scrimmage, too.
A bye week one-third of the way through the season might just be ideal timing. Without the pressures of preparing for a Saturday opponent, NU's players have been able to examine and address their deficiencies. And they're committed to making real progress.
“I've seen a lot of guys that they have that look in their eye that we've been missing,” said junior cornerback Josh Mitchell. “There's a lot of guys out here that they're tired of all the noise and all the nonsense, and they realize that talking about it ain't going to do anything. So what I see around here is a lot of guys that are more focused.”
They'll need to carry over that mentality through next week and into their Big Ten opener against Illinois. Sustaining any sort of consistency has been difficult for the young defense, coach Bo Pelini said.
So that's why much of the defensive coaches' emphasis this week has centered on teaching. They're trying to get players to quickly dissect the strategies of opposing offenses and react accordingly.
Failure to adjust correctly during the few seconds before a snap has been plaguing the defense all year.
“We're doing a lot of what-ifs,” linebackers coach Ross Els said. “We're trying to look outside of what we've seen from the opponent. And say, 'OK, here's your defense. You good? Now, what if they flex this guy out? What are you going to do?' ”
Els said the Huskers have been working out of two separate groups in practice this week to increase the reps and speed the learning process.
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The coaching staff actually took some defenders back to “square one” just to reinforce the system's principles, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
It's an approach somewhat reminiscent of last year's midseason bye week, which occurred right after Nebraska lost 63-38 to Ohio State. The coaches made some schematic alterations then as well, most notably making concessions in their pass defense to be more effective against the run.
The Huskers won their next six games after that week off. They're 5-1 in games directly after byes under Pelini.
And Pelini said he's seeing improvement again this week.
“I saw a marked jump (Wednesday),” he said. “But that needs to continue. It's got to come with reps. We've just got to keep drilling it, and drilling it, and drilling it, and drilling it. There's where we are.”
The Nebraska offense has the same challenge.
The Huskers were sharp in their 59-20 win over South Dakota State, but that was the first time in four games that they had found a rhythm. They're still focused on their biggest hurdle: their own unforced errors.
So assistant coaches are nitpicking the position-specific details that often get overlooked when practices are designed for game plan installation.
The talking points differ based on position. For example, receivers coach Rich Fisher is paying attention to “releases, route running, blocking, target points.” Anything he can find to help his guys improve.
And after four games, it seems as if the players needed a chance to go back to the basics, according to Fisher.
“This bye week's come at a perfect time,” he said.
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after Wednesday's practice
Video: Wide receiver Kenny Bell after Wednesday's practice
Video: Defensive end Randy Gregory after Wednesday's practice
Video: The Big Ten Preview Show, Sept. 25
Video: The Big Red Today Show, Sept. 24