LINCOLN — Assigned seating doesn't have the best reputation among college students.
But Nebraska's football team has seemingly found a purpose for it, and coach Bo Pelini has used it — and other team-building tactics — this training camp to help create a chemistry that he and players are applauding as NU begins to bore in on its season opener.
“This team has some intangibles and leadership that I really like,” Pelini said. “It's a true team. I like the way they've come together.”
Said defensive end Jason Ankrah: “We were pretty close last year. But this year, I think we're the closest. ... We've changed the standard around here, changed the atmosphere. It's really good for us.”
It started when Pelini picked and announced permanent captains earlier this summer. Strength and conditioning coach James Dobson, quarterback Taylor Martinez said, created some bonding moments during the summer. NU again learned from “The Program,” a military-style training system.
The chemistry lessons continued at the start of camp, when Ankrah entered the Huskers' large meeting auditorium and found his seat had already been chosen for him. And he wasn't necessarily surrounded by defensive players.
“It used to be one side offense, one side defense,” Ankrah said. “Now it's everybody mixed together. When coach Bo asks questions, he knows exactly where everybody is. He asks the offense and defense to interact with the specialist, just all around. It's not necessarily separated anymore.”
Said offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles: “It's a good thing. It shows how much of a team we are. It really doesn't matter where we sit.”
An offensive and defensive separation isn't that uncommon; teams typically have separate coordinators for each side of the ball for a reason. But offensive guard and captain Spencer Long said NU practices could be more adversarial than they needed to be.
“We just kept noticing that, every practice, it was 'O' vs. 'D,' 'O' vs. 'D,' 'O' vs. 'D,' 'O' vs. 'D,' ” Long said. “But we're starting to realize that, hey, we can pick each other, regardless of whether we're on different sides of the ball. You are one team and you're relying on each other.”
The unity has manifested itself in more practical ways. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck, for example, is asking the defense to hold the offense responsible for poor ball security, even as the defense tries to create turnovers.
Senior wide receiver and captain Quincy Enunwa said he's had defensive players come up and ask him questions they may not have in previous years. How do you survive camp? How do you get through the heat? As a declared captain, Enunwa is what Sirles called earlier in a “facepoint.”
As a captain, Enunwa can also serve as a rump-kicker if the situation calls for it.
“We've kind of taken charge when things aren't going our way,” Enunwa said. “We've called the team if we think it's necessary to get us back in gear and get us going the right way, just so the team knows that there's a certain standard we want to keep.”
Martinez said there hasn't been much need for it — older players and younger players are feeding off each other. Pelini said several players beyond the four captains have been “outstanding” in their leadership, including Ankrah and running back Ameer Abdullah, “who's a natural leader.”
Sirles said that closeness emanates from “caring about the guys right and left, and not just focusing on you and doing your job.”
Ankrah confirms that it's a change from when he arrived in Lincoln in 2009, when defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh held court.
“What I seen with Suh? Yeah — it was pretty wild out here,” Ankrah said. “It was something different. But we changed that up. Yeah, it brought the best out of each other.
“Since I've been here, we've had good, winning seasons. I'm not going to say nothing was wrong or nothing was right. But this is a different atmosphere from when I first got here.”
Strong showing for Rodriguez
Senior tackle Andrew Rodriguez is having his strongest camp in four years, Pelini said. As Husker fans and beat reporters know: It's never been a question of talent or raw power with the 6-foot-6, 320-pounder. Pelini said some of the other pieces are falling into place for Rodriguez, as well.
“With Andrew, a lot of times, it was a confidence factor, a fight-through-things mentally (factor),” Pelini said. “I think he's in a good place. I think he's grown up a lot. I think he's feeling good about where he is as a player. That's always good.”
Young linemen getting up to speed
Sirles said sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory reminds him of some of the athletes he used to see in the Big 12 and SEC.
“Tremendous athlete,” Sirles said. “He's got really good hands. I think he's going to make a really big impact for us. I'm looking forward to what he can do on Saturdays for us. He's a fast kid.”
The key, Sirles said: Getting Gregory — and several other young defensive linemen — up to speed with the defense. Long, the All-American candidate at guard, said the offensive linemen are trying to help the young guys on the other side of the trench with technique pointers after practice. Four of NU's projected five starters are seniors, and the fifth, guard Jake Cotton, is a fourth-year junior.
“You confront them outside of practice and just say, 'This is what you did, this is why I knew you were going to do this, stay lower, use your hands better,' ” Long said.
Walk-on scholarships up in the air
Junior defensive end Walker Ashburn had to retire from football, Pelini said, because of concussions. Ashburn had not been an on-field factor for his first three years at NU. Because the retirement occurred after July 1, Ashburn will not go on medical redshirt until after the season. It means, effectively, that one less walk-on can earn a scholarship during the season.
“He's had a couple concussions,” Pelini said. “We sat him down and talked to his family and made the decision that it was about time.”
NU has open scholarships to offer walk-ons, but Pelini said he's “still waiting here on a couple things, so that announcement will be coming here by the end of the week.”
Those “couple things” likely include whether two 2013 recruits — defensive end Dimarya Mixon and linebacker Marcus Newby — will be academically eligible. Pelini's expressed confidence in previous interviews that both will. Another 2013 recruit, wide receiver Tre'Vell Dixon, is likely enrolling in junior college.
Tight end Carter impresses Martinez
Martinez is bullish on several freshmen on the Huskers' offense, but he picked tight end Cethan Carter as the guy who could surprise Nebraska fans this year.
“You guys should see him in the first game,” Martinez said of the 6-foot-4 240-pounder from Metairie, La., a New Orleans suburb. “He can run, he can catch. You'll see him in the first game.”
Carter spent his junior year at Rummel High School as a fullback. He switched to tight end as a senior, but remained primarily a blocker.
Martinez said he's seen Carter's skill set already and been impressed.
“You can see him catching the ball and maybe dropping one or two passes (in camp) just because he's young,” Martinez said. “But I've seen him catch passes in traffic and go up for passes. He's a good add for us. You'll see him play a lot.”
Martinez said freshman running backs Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor should play as well.
Graduation 'special' for Randle
Thad Randle experienced one of the highlights of his time at Nebraska last Saturday morning, and it had nothing to do with football.
The senior defensive tackle graduated during ceremonies at Pinnacle Bank Arena, receiving his degree in ethnic studies and saying: “It felt real good to become part of the alumni here.”
Randle, from Galena Park, Texas, said about a half-dozen family members came to watch, including some that hadn't previously come for a football game.
“That's special in its own way, because I'm really one of the only people to ever get a college degree in my family,” he said.
NU teammates also receiving their degrees were safety Andrew Green and cornerback Mohammed Seisay, as well as former Huskers P.J. Smith, Cory Ross and Chris Patrick.
Defensive linemen stepping up
Nebraska offensive tackle Sirles can speak to the progress of some young Husker defensive linemen, especially when he knows where some of them started out.
“We blocked a lot of those faces last year on scout team,” Sirles said Tuesday. “And where they've came from with scout team and even from the spring has been leaps and bounds. Those guys have really stepped up, because I think they understand how much we really need them.”
With Sirles and four other seniors among the top offensive linemen, they have been able to help the inexperienced defensive ends and tackles through preseason camp with ideas and tips.
“We're all in this together,” Sirles said. “We make sure if we come out and we see something, we talk to them.”
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Video: Quarterback Taylor Martinez
Video: Wide receiver Quincy Enunwa
Video: Coach Bo Pelini