Published Saturday, September 7, 2013 at 12:01 am / Updated at 12:23 am
FOOTBALL
Shatel: After feeling growing pains, defense flashes its potential

LINCOLN — John Papuchis had his back to the wall. The cameras and hot lights closed in. He brushed away some sweat.

But this time Nebraska's defensive coordinator could smile. He exhaled. He had been waiting to exhale.

“How are you guys doing?'' Papuchis asked the reporters.

Better question: How are you doing, Coach?

“Better today,” Papuchis said. “Little bit.”

It was a whole lot better, this second installment of the Blackshirt defense. It was a whirlwind of fresh faces and energy and turnovers for touchdowns and ball-hawking and in-your-face pressure.

They were the story last weekend, and they were the story again of this 56-13 rout of Southern Mississippi. Different week. Different story.

This is how it will probably be this year. Papuchis knows it. Everyone knows it. Ups, downs. Growing pains displayed on the scoreboard. A seasonlong puzzle. This week, we found another piece. Good piece. One that fit.

“I think there was significant progress from week one to week two,” Papuchis said. “That's what we were hoping to see.”

It's what they absolutely had to see.

This performance was what everyone needed. Coaches. Fans. Mostly, the kids themselves. Kids, indeed.

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Josh Banderas, who was playing for Lincoln Southwest a year ago, started at middle linebacker on Saturday night. Didn't I just cover Banderas' letter-of-intent signing at Southwest High? Yes, I did.

Here came Nathan Gerry, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound ball of energy from Sioux Falls, S.D. Technically, Gerry started at linebacker, but it was in the dime defense and Gerry served more as a linebacker-safety hybrid.

Forget all of the techno terms. The kid is a playmaker.

Later we saw Michael Rose, a redshirt freshman linebacker. And redshirt freshman Vincent Valentine pushing boulders up front, and freshman Maliek Collins subbing for him, and there was Aaron Curry rushing from the edge.

And then there was this No. 44, looking like some sort of secret weapon, a heat-seeking missile pointed at the quarterback. But Randy Gregory, all 6-6, 255 pounds of him, won't be a secret very long.

Guarantee you UCLA coach Jim Mora will make sure he knows his number and name.

That's a lot of youth out there, and we'd heard about this all spring and in fall camp, but it unfolded before our eyes on Saturday night.

They're fun to watch when they get going. And they got going early on Saturday. And Bo Pelini and Papuchis couldn't have had it any other way.

It's not as if this is some experiment. The kids are real. They can play. They can run. As Papuchis said, “If we don't put our best players on the field, we're not doing our job.”

But as well as rookies Banderas and Gerry played last night, it's a bit of a gamble to put freshmen in the starting lineup in the second game of the season. What if things go wrong? How do they handle it?

Pelini and Papuchis have shown their confidence in the kids by putting them out there so soon. But the best confidence comes from positive results. It came Saturday night in a late summer snowball.

Credit senior corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste with starting it. On the third play of the game, Jean-Baptiste jumped a pass route and easily made an interception, then cruised 43 yards for a jump-starting touchdown.

“After the first game, they were unsure of themselves,” Papuchis said. “Now they have a little swagger. Getting a pick early was important. It kind of fed off that momentum.”

Confidence. Momentum. Energy. Until the experience comes, that's their survival kit for this season.

Let's not get into Southern Miss' role here. That's not a great offense. The Golden Eagles haven't won in two years. Wyoming rolled again Saturday. But let's be real: Except for UCLA, nobody on the schedule the first two months is going to offer much of a measuring stick for where the defense stands.

Next weekend is interesting, to be sure. That will tell us something real. If the result is bad, is that devastating? Not at all. the defense still could be something by November. Whatever happens next Saturday, the Blackshirts figure to learn a lot about themselves and where they stand. On Sept. 14.

What we're learning is that they could have a pass rush to be reckoned with. And that's everything.

Valentine played well for the second straight game. He's a big body who grew up fast over the summer and now is proving he belongs. Collins had a tackle for a loss. That's a telling stat for Pelini's best defenses: When there are hurries and tackles for losses and sacks, good things are happening.

NU had seven quarterback hurries officially, but USM quarterback Allan Bridgford was rushed all night. That led to the four interceptions, and it's a wonder there weren't more.

The Gregory kid had four hurries. Check that — he's no kid. This is a grown man in a young man's body, playing with the spirit of a kid rushing the quarterback in his backyard on Thanksgiving.

If Gregory can play bouncer again next weekend? Hello, world.

We'll know more a week from now. But we won't see the finished puzzle, not by a long shot. When first- and second-year players are dominating the front seven, it's going to be a work in progress, with emphasis on work. And progress.

There was progress everywhere on Saturday night. You saw it in the energy, the playmaking, the confidence. It was food for their souls and minds. Papuchis said some of the kids were a little shell-shocked from last weekend and the reaction.

Last weekend happened. But so did Saturday's game. And just as last weekend isn't what these Blackshirts are going to be, it's hard to say they're going to score two TDs and harass every Big Ten quarterback this way.

This group is still going to need Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah and the chaps to score as many points as they would like each and every week.

But Saturday night offered some much-needed levity to balance last week's panic attack. Was it the start of something? Check back next week. And the week after that.

Gregory. Banderas. Gerry. Rose. Anderson. Valentine. Collins. They could be the nucleus of the next great defense. Too soon to say. But what we do know is there's speed, athleticism, talent, playmaking and enthusiasm. That's a great place to start.

“We have potential to be pretty good,” Papuchis said. “We're not there yet. We have to keep working. We have to keep moving forward.”

Where are they going? How soon will they get there? Don't know. This much we know: it's going to be fun to watch.

* * *

Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Southern Miss game:



Video: NU's Taylor Martinez after the Southern Miss game:



Video: NU's Josh Banderas after the Southern Miss game:



Video: NU's Randy Gregory after the Southern Miss game:

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel

tom.shatel@owh.com    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.

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