LINCOLN — Before practice on Tuesday, Nebraska linebackers coach Trent Bray reminded his players to embrace their roles, and more to the point, understand that all of the guys in the room have a role. Even the four scholarship players redshirting this season.
Convincing a whole unit that each part is equally important can be a challenge in any workplace. It might be even harder in college football, where high school superstars have to wait their turn and learn to share snaps. At Nebraska, five linebackers — Josh Banderas, Michael Rose-Ivey, Dedrick Young, Marcus Newby and Chris Weber — are likely to play regular roles in the Huskers’ defense heading into Big Ten play, and Luke Gifford has a specific role in NU’s dime package.
Bray may want to play them all — they’ve earned the chance, and it keeps guys fresh. But it means, too, those players have to be comfortable with various combinations on the field.
“It’s a real credit to these guys, how they’ve handled it,” Bray said. “Because being switched in and out, it can be hard on a kid.”
It might be tough in a lot of places, Gifford said. But, thus far, it’s worked at Nebraska this season. Young and Banderas have 14 tackles apiece. Rose-Ivey has 12. Newby has 10. Weber has six.
“I don’t think, if we weren’t this close, it would work as well,” Banderas said. “We’d have people bumpin’ heads. We’re such a tight-knit group when we’re not even here. We’re hanging out with each other. That’s really helped with our roles.”
Ironically, so did a spate of injuries last season. Rose-Ivey in particular battled a nagging groin injury. As a result of injuries, all five of the top ’backers logged at least two starts, and Gifford played in six games.
That meant Bray had to prepare a variety of guys to play extended snaps. That left the unit ultra-experienced heading into 2016 — and accustomed to sharing.
The unit got a boost, too, from Tyrin Ferguson’s group-building talents. The sophomore from New Orleans is redshirting this season — he’ll battle Weber for the starting middle linebacker job in 2017 — but he took an active role in making the room grow closer last season when he played on special teams.
“If you want to say someone took on the role of getting us together, it was Ferg, more than anything,” Banderas said. “It was pretty cool. He came in and it seemed like we got all the tighter.”
Now, the linebackers and their coach agree, they need to get better after a performance against Oregon that wasn’t up to Bray’s standards. Though the Ducks’ talent, speed and no-huddle, fast tempo stress most defenses, Bray said the ’backers need to fix several errors from the 35-32 win.
“We missed some tackles that we shouldn’t have missed, and a couple times we’re late to hitting the gap, and when you’re late against that little No. 5 they have, it’s too late,” Bray said, referring to Oregon running back Taj Griffin, who torched NU for a 50-yard second-quarter touchdown run. “But that’s Oregon, and we knew that going in.”
Rose-Ivey said Nebraska’s want-to masked some of the errors.
“We played hard, we played physical, we had some key mental errors that we alleviated because of our effort and willingness to win,” Rose-Ivey said. “And that’s great. You look at our coaches and hear it in their voice — they see our potential and what we can do.
“But we’ve got to get rid of the careless mistakes, the miscues and the stuff that’s going to come around to haunt us eventually. If we keep playing with fire — it’s not going to burn us here — it’s eventually going to catch on fire.”
Rose-Ivey has quickly moved into a playmaker position within the defense. The senior from Kansas City missed most of fall camp with a knee tweak, but Bray said he’s earned more playing time. Rose-Ivey was stingy on a few running plays against Oregon, and he made the dramatic tackle on quarterback Dakota Prukop to seal the Huskers’ win over the Ducks.
Rose-Ivey has yet to start a game.
“It was more important to us to have him the whole year than burn him out early,” Bray said.
Bray picks his ’backers based on how well they’re playing and matchups. With so many experienced, worthy options, it’s not easy to get on the field for extended snaps.
“It’s a very competitive room,” Rose-Ivey said. “Bray loves all his guys, but he wants the best guys out there. That’s how it is. This isn’t Pop Warner football anymore.”
Still, the room retains a strong camaraderie.
“We’ve just got a bunch of selfless guys,” Rose-Ivey said.