LINCOLN — It was Michael Rose and Jared Afalava taking their turns Saturday, and Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis was getting an opportunity to find out more about two other Husker linebackers.
Rose played well. Afalava had some good plays and some he’d like back.
And basically, they backed up what Papuchis already knew: NU has six linebackers who need as much evaluation as they can get.
“I don’t think anyone’s earned the right to just grab a starting spot and be the guy exclusively,” Papuchis said after Nebraska beat Illinois 39-19 Saturday. “Until someone just owns the position, I think you just keep rolling guys through and see who ends up coming out with it at the end.”
Nebraska’s top half-dozen choices at linebacker are one junior (Zaire Anderson), a sophomore (David Santos), two redshirt freshmen (Rose and Afalava) and two true freshmen (Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry).
“We’re learning about these guys every week,” Papuchis said. “So the competition aspect that takes place in practice, I think, is good for everybody in the long run.”
NU has a little more to see on film after opening the Illinois game in its base defense and playing three linebackers more than it had all season.
Rose (weakside) and Afalava (strongside) made their first career starts, flanking Santos in the middle. Rose led the trio with a team-high 11 tackles, while Santos added nine and Afalava eight. All three had five unassisted stops.
“It was great,” Rose said. “We knew coming into the game it’d be the kind of game that linebackers should love.”
Despite their reliance through September on nickel and dime packages, Papuchis said, the Huskers still regularly practice their base defense.
“We haven’t had a lot of opportunity to run it,” he said. “And I thought it was good that we had the chance.”
Santos returned as No. 1 at middle linebacker after Banderas had started the previous three games. Rose said he was “very focused on the opportunity” at the weakside spot, where Anderson was going to sit (because of a bone bruise) unless needed.
“I thought Michael Rose performed pretty well,” coach Bo Pelini said. “He looked very confident. It looked like he did a lot of good things out there.”
Rose, a 5-foot-11 230-pounder out of Kansas City Rockhurst, hadn’t played much through the nonconference season, making two tackles. But he said he prepared well during the bye week and felt good going into Saturday.
“We came out with a lot of energy,” he said, “and I was able to feed off that energy.”
Afalava was No. 1 at strongside linebacker at times in preseason practice before an injury setback. Gerry assumed that role and started three games.
Papuchis said the bye week allowed NU to get Afalava caught up. The coordinator called the 6-3 230-pounder from South Jordan, Utah, a physical linebacker and a good fit for the position.
Afalava got some coaching on the fly Saturday. Papuchis said one of his mistakes happened when a check put him in the wrong spot. But the coach also would like to see Afalava “be more aggressive covering a guy in space.”
Some of that will come only with experience.
“Every time they get out there it’s good, because it’s the first time they’re doing it,” Papuchis said. “So I think that’s going to be good now and down the road.”