LINCOLN — Nebraska linebackers have had to battle injuries all season, so it’s fitting — and ironic — that the guy who started the most games, Dedrick Young, was hurt for a good chunk of the season.
The quiet Young just didn’t let on that he’d been playing through a groin injury since the Wisconsin game.
“I didn’t even know about it until the last week of the season,” linebackers coach Trent Bray said. Bray, the high-energy, no-excuses position coach, already had enough to contend with, using five players at different times to fill three starting linebacker spots. Some weeks, he had only four or five available for the game.
Bray and crew made it through. Now, presuming Marcus Newby can recover enough from a shoulder injury, the unit can be whole heading into the Foster Farms Bowl against UCLA. It’s been a bumpy journey at times this season, but linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, who battled through more severe groin problems of his own, expects the whole unit to be used, as the Bruins’ fast-paced spread offense challenges defenders.
“It’s going to be important we’re all ready to go,” said Rose-Ivey, who has 24 tackles this season in six games. “It goes to our strength. We’ve got some quality guys in there who can step up when guys get tired or we need a certain look, a certain package, out there. That’s just a versatility our linebacker corps can bring out there.”
Nebraska had to develop that versatility this season. Injuries to presumed starters Rose-Ivey and Josh Banderas pressed into service sophomores Marcus Newby and Chris Weber, neither of whom had played meaningful snaps at linebacker before this season. Newby had been a third-down pass rushing specialist who couldn’t quite grasp the old defense. Weber had been third string.
Those two have combined for 82 tackles and 10 tackles for loss this season, even though they, too, battled injuries.
And then there was Young, a true freshman from Arizona who enrolled early, won a starting job in fall camp, and kept it for the rest of the season. He had 58 tackles. Bray said Young — not one for a lot of interviews — exceeded expectations this season in his grasp of the defense and general execution. The best thing about Young, Bray said, was his even temperament: Very little can get him too up or down.
Rose-Ivey saw the same thing.
“He’s a kid with a lot of confidence,” Rose-Ivey said. “He doesn’t display (openly) but he’s got a lot of inner confidence. He seemed like a guy who wanted to play early, and that’s what he did.”
With help from teammates. If there’s one thing injured guys could do as they worked through rehab, it was to help younger, less experienced players through their season. Young had a “close room” around him, Rose-Ivey said, that helped him along.
“You can still lead from the sideline,” Rose-Ivey said. “There’s guys who may not get a snap at all that I still look at as leaders.”
Bray said he appreciated older players coming around Young and supporting his progress.
“They did a great job,” Bray said. “They knew they needed him and needed to help him out with the experience part.”
Now, a final game for experience — UCLA. The Bruins gave Nebraska’s defense all kinds of fits in 2012 and 2013. The Huskers struggled to tackle UCLA’s dynamic athletes in both games. Linebackers were often left to defend Bruin backs and tight ends. They weren’t always up to that challenge.
Bray said UCLA’s quick tempo and motions before the snaps — often a running back or slot player toward the sideline — are designed to spread out defenses and isolate defenders to attack. When UCLA can get one of its players — say, running back Paul Perkins, who’s run for 2,850 yards and scored 25 total touchdowns over the last two seasons — in space against a defender, UCLA likes its chances to win that battle. That’s why, Bray said, tackling and swarming to the ball are so important.
So is being quick in the mental game.
“You have to think faster and move faster,” Bray said.
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