LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco reached for the dramatic when describing the meaning of Blackshirts for 16 Husker football players.
“If their goal was to get a shirt, then we’re going to have a learning curve,” Diaco said. “If their goal was to take on the responsibility and accountability of defending the hopes and dreams of the team, the university and the state, that’s super exciting.”
Diaco, who played linebacker at Iowa in the 1990s, said he knew of the Blackshirt tradition before he arrived at Nebraska — no defender, he said, could grow up in America and not know it — and he wanted to make sure the players understood that just getting the Blackshirt wasn’t the goal. He described the decision to arrive at 16 players.
“It’s the beginning of a process,” Diaco said. “It’s the beginning of the responsibility and accountability to work, habits, leadership, strain, pain.”
Sophomore inside linebacker Mohamed Barry, one of the 16 Blackshirts, got Diaco’s message.
“I have to go hard, I have to get better, I have to hold myself to a higher standard, because that’s what it means,” Barry said. “It’s not the beginning. It’s not that you arrived. It’s what’s in you. Every day, you’ve got to get better.”
Coach Mike Riley justified giving out 16 Blackshirts on Tuesday during his Big Ten teleconference segment.
Riley said he and the defensive staff explained to Diaco what they’d done in the past and decided to do something similar this year. Essentially, Riley explained, they decided to give out a Blackshirt to anyone they thought would contribute a great deal in games.
That means players such as Barry, who is the third inside linebacker behind Chris Weber and Dedrick Young, earned a Blackshirt. Barry might technically be a backup, but he’ll play quite a bit this year, Riley said, so coaches decided to give him a Blackshirt.
Those who received the black practice jerseys on Monday were defensive linemen Carlos Davis, Khalil Davis, Freedom Akinmoladun and Mick Stoltenberg; linebackers Alex Davis, Marcus Newby, Luke Gifford, Barry, Young and Weber; cornerbacks Lamar Jackson, Eric Lee and Dicaprio Bootle; and safeties Aaron Williams, Joshua Kalu and Antonio Reed.
The defense as a whole, Diaco said, continues to evolve, and needs game experience to keep improving.
“It’s so much better than all the practices,” Diaco said. “Practices are great, but playing in the game is priceless. So the evolution of the defense is going to be profound. And it’ll never stop.”
» Diaco said Arkansas State’s offense uses an “innovative” and “dynamic” system that will be an “awesome challenge” for Nebraska’s defense. Diaco praised ASU quarterback Justice Hansen, the Red Wolves’ receivers and tight end Blake Mack, who led Arkansas State last season with 34 catches for 652 yards.
“Talented player,” Diaco said of the 6-foot-3, 229-pound Mack, who was second-team All-Sun Belt last season. “Matchup issue.”
» Slot receiver JD Spielman said one of his favorite players is the Los Angeles Rams’ Tavon Austin, who previously starred at West Virginia. Additionally, he liked Percy Harvin, the former Florida star who played for several NFL teams including the Vikings. Spielman’s dad, Rick, is the Vikings’ general manager.
» Linebackers coach Trent Bray hailed Barry’s fall camp. Barry was not listed as a starter on Nebraska’s depth chart, but was given a Blackshirt on Monday.
“His game continues to improve,” Bray said. “He’s a high-motor, high-collision guy who flies around and makes plays. He’s earned the right to be on the field and he’s gonna play for us and help us win.”
One of the first people Barry called was former Blackshirt Eric Johnson, who played at Nebraska in the late 1990s. Johnson was Barry’s personal trainer while Barry was back home in the Atlanta area in the offseason. Johnson started every game for Nebraska at linebacker in the 1998 season.
» Bootle, a redshirt freshman, was presented with a pair of goggles during warm-ups at practice. As he put them on, players stretching around him yelled, “He can see!” Bootle’s eye contacts were apparently bugging him, so it seems like he’ll now wear goggles for practices and games. Cornerbacks coach Donte Williams said Bootle is now the Eric Dickerson of the Huskers, referring to the famous 1980s running back. “He’s the best player in college football with goggles,” Williams joked.
Bootle received a Blackshirt on Monday. He’ll be Nebraska’s No. 1 nickel corner.
» The after-practice snacks for the players were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crusts cut off.
Should only defensive starters receive Blackshirts?
NU coach Mike Riley said they decided to give out a Blackshirt to anyone they thought would contribute a great deal in games, not just starters. Do you think starters and backups should receive Blackshirts?
How the cookie crumbles: Nebraska's 2017 football schedule
A week-by-week breakdown of Nebraska's schedule with final predictions for each game. Predictions were made before the season started. Broken cookies are predicted Husker wins, whole cookies are predicted losses. Text by Sam McKewon and Evan Bland. Photos by Kent Sievers. Cookies by Sugar Chic Design.