LINCOLN — The mental resiliency of an inexperienced linebacker group is being put to the test once again as Nebraska continues to search for answers in the middle of its defense.
Just about every linebacker has been demoted at least once, and no one seems to hold on to the coveted first-team spots for more than two weeks at a time.
The personnel moves, prompted by failures and inconsistency, are now designed to pinpoint a role specific to each player's skill set. The Husker coaches aren't changing their message or lowering their standard, but they're waiting for someone to emerge.
“We're having guys that aren't performing, so we've got to give the other guy a shot,” linebackers coach Ross Els said. “Until we get guys that really separate themselves and say, 'I'm this much better than you,' we're going to keep rolling until we find the right fit.”
A revolving door is not ideal, Els said.
Sophomore David Santos began the year as the No. 1 middle linebacker. But after losing that job, regaining it and losing it again, he'll play on the weakside this week. Redshirt freshman Michael Rose has swapped into his spot in the middle, joining another freshman (Josh Banderas) who's also bounced around the depth chart. Freshman Nathan Gerry, once a safety, has played strongside and weakside linebacker, in addition to a dime-back role.
Junior Zaire Anderson has been banged up all year. And coach Bo Pelini said on his radio call-in show Wednesday that redshirt freshman Jared Afalava won't play against Northwestern, which could limit the playing time for several linebackers with all its spread looks.
Els said he and the staff are trying to play the matchups as they scheme to match Northwestern's offense.
Els said most of the linebacker-specific assignments are interchangeable, anyway. He's been trying to teach his players the responsibilities of every spot since the offseason. They've made week-to-week position switches at linebacker in the past, he said.
“It's probably a better fit for this game,” Els said. “We need to see if this is a better mix for us.”
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Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said Rose has a “take-charge personality,” so he's looked comfortable while aligning teammates and making adjustments before the snap in practice this week.
And Santos, while at weakside linebacker last year, had maybe his best highlight of the season when he knifed through the line of scrimmage and tackled Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter in the backfield. The linebackers were going through film this week, and Els paused the game tape just to mention that play.
“Everybody remembers that one play,” Els said. “I don't know if he's more comfortable or not on the outside, but he's having a good week of practice.”
Translating the performance to the game has been the challenge for all of the linebackers.
They're still struggling to take sideline adjustments and apply them on the next drive, even though they work meticulously at that in practice. And they're often quick to abandon their fundamentals (eye placement especially), even though that's the primary emphasis by coaches in practice.
Rose said he and the linebackers nailed every single pre-snap check when Els paused the Minnesota game tape at the first sign of motion or shifting during Sunday's film review.
So to Rose, that means they're close.
“We've just got to go out there and make plays,” he said. “It's just time for us to grow up and execute our football. That's all we can do at this point.”
And be ready to respond if there are more mistakes. That's what Banderas learned as he watched his teammates from the sideline last week.
They've all faced their own share of adversity this season, but Banderas said bouncing back quickly could make the difference.
“You can't hang your head just because you let a big play go,” he said. “You've got to come back and make the correction and then do it better the next time and keep your head high.”