LINCOLN — Footwork drills. Ross Els remembers working with his three fifth-year senior linebackers — Will Compton, Sean Fisher and Alonzo Whaley — on improving their footwork last year.
The trio knew Bo Pelini's defense as well as they could — heck, they'd been around longer than Els — and on the occasion that they made a mental mistake, they'd correct it with the next rep.
It was, in a sense, Football 404 that Nebraska's linebackers coach was teaching. Or a graduate class.
This year? The footwork's surprisingly good, Els said. The knowledge of the defense is still coming.
It's Football 101 in Els' world, where the most experienced guy is sophomore David Santos, and he's playing a different position than he did last year. Two true freshmen — Josh Banderas and Nate Gerry — have been playing since opening night. Two redshirt freshmen — Jared Afalava and Michael Rose — are seeing their first action.
“Everything for Ross was really back to square one,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “Even with David, who had played a little bit, playing Mike (linebacker) is a totally different world. Sometimes it's good, though, from a teaching perspective to have to go back to square one because it forces you to evaluate your teaching progression and your installation progression.
“When guys are so veteran, you assume a lot of things. When they're young, you can't assume anything.”
Els' job is to figure out what concepts the group can pick up, and the pace he needs to teach it. The goal: Know the whole of Pelini's scheme, not just the parts, to prepare for offenses that switch up the game plan.
“We keep talking about concepts around here,” said Els, who joined NU's staff after the 2010 season. He's recruited all of the scholarship linebackers now on the roster.
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“Teams don't show you the same thing over and over and over again. They come up with a new wrinkle. And if you don't understand the whole concept of the defense, you're not going to be able to adjust to the wrinkle. That's what we're getting better at: How a defense fits against everything.”
Els said the linebackers have also improved in their ability to get over mistakes. It was a challenge after struggles in a 37-34 win against Wyoming, and Els mentioned four players — Santos, Rose, Afalava and junior Zaire Anderson — who had to face the adversity of a full or partial demotion since preseason practice.
“All four of them, at one time or another, kind of went into that shell of 'oh, no, I've let the team down. I'm not doing very well,'” Els said. “(I said) 'Hey, man, pick yourself up.' We talk about revolving doors. You're going to resurface again. Since the UCLA game, I think we've responded well when we screw up.”
Santos, who dropped to third string after the Wyoming game, started against Illinois and Purdue, which Els said was the linebackers' best overall game. Santos is second on the team with 36 tackles. Rose has 13 tackles and Afalava has eight. Gerry and Banderas, who started together in the last three nonconference games before seeing their time reduced, have combined for 45 tackles. Anderson, who's battled a bone bruise, has 17 tackles despite being in and out of the lineup.
“I can't think of a single guy who's sitting back pouting and so upset with themselves,” Els said. “If you screw up, you get replaced, but, hey, practice better, play better, you're going to resurface again. They've seen guys be able to recover. It's a positive room now, and it's a tight-knit room, too. They're really helping each other.”
Best of all, Papuchis said, they're all returning next year — and only Anderson will be a senior.
“Week by week, we've gotten better,” Papuchis said. “If that continues to be the case, I'm pretty excited about it. Not just for the next six weeks, but we don't lose a 'backer this year. The short-term and the long-term future of our linebacking corps is pretty solid.”