LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive end Freedom Akinmoladun paused Tuesday evening to find the right words.
His No. 91 jersey was black, which meant he was a Blackshirt, one of NU’s top defenders in 2016, one player in a long line of Huskers who have worn the shirt that designates the first-team defense.
“Wearing that Blackshirt means something bigger than the shirt,” Akinmoladun said.
It represented, he said, all of the Blackshirts who came before him and the other Blackshirts who would play beside and behind him this season.
Nebraska’s defensive coaches hung the black practice jerseys in the lockers of 13 players: Akinmoladun, linebacker Josh Banderas, defensive end Ross Dzuris, safety Nate Gerry, cornerback Chris Jones, cornerback Joshua Kalu, defensive tackle Kevin Maurice, linebacker Marcus Newby, linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg, safety Aaron Williams, linebacker Chris Weber and linebacker Dedrick Young.
The Huskers handed out 11 to start last season. Defensive coordinator Mark Banker said he enjoyed the process much more this season. In 2015, he said, “it seemed like an arduous task.”
That’s because coaches were returning the Blackshirt tradition to its original state, in which players received them before the season. During the Bo Pelini era — with the exception of 2013 — players got their Blackshirts during the season, after Pelini and his staff thought players had earned them with satisfactory game performances.
Banker and Co. preferred the standard procedure. And this time, Banker said, “it was fun.” Plus, Banker had a bonus source of history in defensive line coach John Parrella, himself a former Husker and Blackshirt at Nebraska.
Parrella spoke to the team about the history and meaning of wearing it.
“It’s one of the longest traditions in football,” Parrella said. “I mean, it’s something that means a lot to our team, means a lot to the guys who came before and will mean a lot to the guys that are going to maybe play next year or the years after.”
Players said they appreciated hearing the message, including Banderas, who received his third Blackshirt.
“This time is the most special because I feel like I truly earned and truly understand it more,” Banderas said.
Said Jones: “That feeling is — you can’t explain that feeling. Just seeing that jersey up there and knowing that now you’re representing guys that came before and guys that are coming after you. It’s a great honor.”
One projected starter — safety Kieron Williams — did not get a Blackshirt. Banker said Williams and four other players are very close to getting them.
“They need to prove it to themselves, prove it to the group that they, in fact, truly earned it,” Williams said. “It should be earned.”
Banker praised a Monday interview Williams conducted with the media.
“His maturity and the way he expressed himself has translated to the field as well,” Banker said. “Now let’s do it in front of the nation.”
Five linebackers received them — including backups Rose-Ivey and Weber, who started multiple games last season. The position is the deepest and most experienced on the defense.
“There’s more veteran leadership there, there’s more experience there,” Banker said. “We’ve got players who are very, very capable of helping this group and playing for each other.”
Several players got their first Blackshirts, including Maurice and Stoltenberg. Combined, they have one career start.
“When I first got here, just seeing guys when they first got the Blackshirt,” Maurice said. “How hard they worked and everything that they put into it. The hard work you put in (during) fall camp, and how you carry yourself every day in practice. That’s what I took from it.”
Akinmoladun called it a “brotherhood.”
“It’s the people who work here every single day trying to make this program better,” he said.