When a running back from a program not far removed from the Football Championship Subdivision reels off a career-high in rushing yards, the alarm goes off for fans.
There's no alarm in the offices of the coaches at Nebraska.
Call it a perfect storm of things that the team had to face, some of it almost just bad luck:
- First, you are facing a team with new coaches, which means you don't have a real good idea of what you are going to see.
- Second, you will have two linebackers in sophomore Alonzo Whaley and junior Lavonte David, who had never taken a snap in an actual game for the Huskers, and David had only arrived in late-Summer.
- Third, those linebackers have to make the calls, which sets the defensive line based on what the aforementioned inexperienced linebackers see
- Fourth, this is the first game of the season and even that Husker defense which dominated so much of the 2009 campaign, still gave up 358 yards in total offense to Florida Atlantic in the season-opener last year.
because of the unknown offense, these fairly green linebackers were
actually given more calls to make, not less, because the coaches had to
cover every possible scenario in practice that this WKU offense might
Since linebackers are the signal-callers on defense, you could say they faced the same kind of challenge that redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez had as the starting quarterback for the game.
But Martinez knew what defense he would be seeing. Whaley and David only had an educated guess as to what the Hilltopper offense would be doing. Martinez has had a year in the system, while David had three weeks worth from the point he could practice with the actual playbook come the start of Fall camp. And let's not forget the big one, Martinez is on offense, which means it's the defense's job to guess what he does, while for David and Whaley – they are the ones who have to guess.
In the end Western Kentucky managed 299 yards, scored 10 points and left the stadium 39 points in the hole.
Many would say you take that, smile and be glad you came out with the win.
But for a coach, that's not quite enough, and the circumstances, while bleak, don't offer a refuge for mistakes. "Going into an opener where you don't know exactly what you are going to get, with guys who haven't played a whole lot – that's probably not ideal," Defensive Line Coach John Papuchis said. "But they practice hard, they work hard and I think they are excited to have another opportunity this week.
"They were thrown in there (but), that's why we practice, and we will continue to get better at that spot."
It probably also didn't help that when WKU did finally show their hand, offensively, what they were doing was ironically enough, hitting Nebraska right where it was having the most issues. Fans will recall a host of little runs, but a number of big ones went right up the middle, an area of the field seemingly invulnerable toward the end of last year. Where teams feared to even try the "Blackshirts" a year ago, the Hilltoppers attacked and with alarming success.
But again, those linebackers who were nowhere near as adept at making the calls as either sophomore Will Compton or Sean Fisher, both full time starters last year – had to make decisions on the fly. And expectedly, not all of them were correct. "The plays that got out, the bigger plays that happened, a lot of it was alignment issues," said Papuchis, who has taken over much of the defensive line duties this year with Carl Pelini assuming more of broader role as the Defensive Coordinator.
The moral of the story?
Keep scheduling the Sun Belt for game one.
As growing pains go, the fact that Nebraska only gave up 10 points in a lopsided win means that it all worked out in the end. And those fresh linebackers aren't the only ones getting their most action since they arrived on campus.
While sophomore Josh Williams had some experience from last year, three games in a reserve role probably isn't quite the baptism by fire that Whaley and David saw this last weekend. It's been growing pains for Williams, perhaps more physically than anything else, the Texas native coming into the program not much over 220 pounds, now finds him pusing over 260.
From being a pure edge rusher in high school to someone expected to be able to do that and be a physical run stopper, that's a heck of a transition. But it's once Papuchis has seen Williams make, little-by-little. "Josh is working hard on his physical aspect of his game. The biggest difference between him and Cameron (Meredith) is the physical presence in the run game," Papuchis said when asked to compare Williams to the Meredith, the sophomore starter who went out with a shoulder injury late in the game.
Part of that battle for Williams isn't the opponent as much as himself, learning to adjust to his size and how to use it. "You learn how to play in a way that suits your body type. He's a bigger more physical guy and he can play a bigger more physical role," Papuchis said of Williams. "In high school he could rely on athleticism to make plays. Now he has to rely on being physical and using technique and he's doing better at that."
Williams finished the game with two stops, equaling his career total coming into the season-opener.
What Williams could face this weekend is even more time, perhaps even starting as Papuchis said he still wasn't certain whether Meredith would be ready to go for the game, despite the fact that he's been practicing in limited fashion since the beginning of the week. But he said he felt comfortable with Williams to not just play behind Meredith or for him should he not be available, but to play either side of the defensive line, because the other defensive end looked at as an eventual contributor this year, isn't there quite yet. "Josh has the ability to play both sides (and) Jason is still learning," he said of redshirt freshman defensive end Jason Ankrah, who is listed as second string behind Meredith. "He's a redshirt freshman. There is a lot he has to learn. He continues to develop. Hopefully if he stays on track where we expect hikm to be, he'll be a guy who can help us before the end of the year."
While Ankrah is still learning, though, Williams could be the utility man of the group.
While it seems a question mark as to whether or not Meredith will be available for this game, junior offensive lineman Marcel Jones seems to be ready to go as he has participated in practices since the beginning of the week. Jones did not play in Saturday's contest as Head Coach Bo Pelini said he was having back issues. But he also said that Jones could have played in that game if he would have been needed.