LINCOLN — He played poorly. His teammates did, too. And now practice was starting and the veteran defensive back — who talks and thinks like a coach — couldn't figure out how to inspire a young defense that had lost its edge and confidence.
That's when Bo Pelini walked up.
Their conversation lasted just a couple of minutes. But it changed Ciante Evans' outlook and altered his approach, ultimately reviving the defense's only captain to the point where he could help trigger a sudden turnaround for an entire unit.
“I can tell it got through to him,” Pelini said.
The seven tackles for loss by Evans in his past two games provide the most tangible evidence. The two wins are what energize Evans even more.
It's what Pelini was hoping to see. Even the team's best players need to be pushed and motivated, and sometimes all it takes is a mild-but-direct reminder that there's always more to give.
“Just looking to push his buttons,” Pelini said.
The sixth-year coach leaned up against a wall inside the Hawks Center on Wednesday as he discussed his tutelage of Evans. Pelini's voice was barely audible as dozens of chattering players crammed the hallway after practice, shuffling toward the locker room. He'd carried a similar demeanor into that brief conversation with Evans three Sundays ago.
Evans appreciated it. He figured some kind of scolding would be coming, though.
The defensive system is Pelini's design. Evans is his latest apprentice. They started breaking down game film together two years ago when Evans first took over the complex nickel back spot.
Evans is an extension of the coaching staff on the field now, often serving as the primary pre-snap strategist as soon as the opposing offense reveals its formation.
Said defensive coordinator John Papuchis: “He understands how they're attacking us and how that impacts his job. And then what he has to do to offset how they're attacking.”
Papuchis snaps his fingers. “He can process it like that.”
But Evans wasn't as mentally sharp against Minnesota, and his attitude ended up reflecting that. He knew it. A step off, not a step ahead — not like he was last weekend when he knew before the snap that Michigan's quarterback was going to roll to his left on the second-to-last play because of the running back's alignment.
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The loss to the Gophers was devastating, but maybe it was necessary, Pelini told him. “Time to take it to another level.”
Evans gathered the defense before practice later that week, pledging to shed his bad habits. His goal was to work a little harder each rep. Maybe it would rub off.
“I've got to keep instilling into those guys,” Evans said. “Keep practicing hard. Go full speed.”
All of Evans' interactions with the defenders seemed more purposeful after that, too. Before in-practice sessions with the scout team or before periods against the No. 1 offense, Evans has been huddling the unit up and shouting out words of encouragement. He's joking around with players more to keep them loose. He passes along tips and tidbits when mistakes are made as regularly as he can.
“A scout running back will run into a defensive player and keep going,” defensive end Avery Moss said. “And you'll hear (Evans) whisper in somebody's ear, 'Wrap up.' ”
Anything to keep the guys focused, Evans said.
But not to the extreme. Evans is back to celebrating every big play, back to screaming out trash-talk, back to strutting around the field like he's the baddest dude alive. Sophomore Randy Gregory said that makes a difference.
“The whole thing about playing with swagger, I think a lot of us get that from him,” Gregory said. “He goes out there and he has fun. He plays his game. A lot of us are molding ourselves after that.”
Evans understands the importance of his role. He's constantly reminding himself, though, to carry out his responsibilities. No detail is too small, he said.
Sometimes the best way to help those around you is to fine-tune your own game, weeding out the flaws and building off the strengths. Pelini won't let Evans forget that, either.
In the celebration after Nebraska's win over Northwestern two weeks ago, Pelini ended up next to Evans inside the Memorial Stadium tunnel.
Evans had a team-high eight tackles, setting the tone for a defense that seemed close to getting pummeled for four quarters once again. But its leader was ready this time around.
“When you have that level of detail and focus, when your preparation's great, it pays off for you on Saturday,” Pelini told Evans.
The coach who'd exposed Evans' complacency just six days earlier was praising him for his commitment. Evans beamed. Then refocused. He needed another performance like that next week.
But that's what those chats with Pelini do to you, Evans said. “Makes you want to do it again.”
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini talks Michigan State after Thursday's practice: