The answer to the question about when the coveted "blackshirts" would be handed out was answered after yesterday's practice, 12 Huskers receiving the infamous jerseys. Of those twelve, 9 were receiving them for at least a second time, leaving 3 the honor of being first-time recipients. Josh Bullocks, LeKevin Smith and Benard Thomas, each can now say they wear a jersey that was worn by those considered to be the elite in the illustrious history of the Nebraska defense.
The honor though means something different to each. "It's the only thing I've been wanting before I came up here." Josh Bullocks said of receiving the jersey for the first time. "And now that I have a blackshirt, I am very proud of myself."
While some obviously revere the tradition and look at the awarding of this as a true honor, a show of their hard work and dedication, some look at it simply as an indication of what's more important to them, starting the football game. "I just want to play." Benard Thomas said. "I just want to start. If you start, you get one and when I figured out what the deal was, that's when I set my goal."
Goal or not, honor or not, the receiving of the jersey makes players on the defensive side stand out. Though for those receiving the jersey, it's no doubt a positive, for those that didn't, coach Pelini was adamant about making sure that the rest of the team wasn't forgotten. "He explained that he doesn't want people to think that you are a separate group from the defense." Barrett Ruud said of comments made by Pelini when he presented the jerseys to the starters. "He wants everyone to still be like one, but this is a way to recognize the starters."
Along with emphasizing that team unity even in the face of such individual honors, Pelini also reinforced the fact that just because you have one this week, it doesn't mean you are going to have it even the week after. "It's an on-going process." Pelini stated. "Just because you earned one now doesn't mean you are going to stay in one and just because you don't have one now doesn't mean you can't get one."
"It's not just about earning it, but keeping it."
The handing out of these "shirts" is big news in Nebraska. Always has been, well at least since I can remember. The tradition, the honor, the ceremonies surrounding the very handing of it to any player deemed worth enough to wear it, it's all created a lore of sorts. This year however, literally nothing has been mentioned of it by anyone outside of the media or fans, they apparently the only ones that cared.
One would have to ask the question then, if Pelini hadn't even handed out a blackshirt this year, would it have been that big of a deal? "It's nice to get them, but I wouldn't have started complaining." Ruud said of if the jerseys had not been awarded at all.
The belief though in why the jersey hasn't been more emphasized was echoed by literally every player I talked to in that, it wasn't that the tradition is less or that the honor is less, it's simply that this defensive coordinator wasn't as privy to it's total meaning, thus the fanfare behind the awarding of the blackshirts wasn't present versus years prior. "He's not from here." Defensive Tackle, Ryon Bingham said of Bo Pelini. "In the past, coach Bohl handed them out, coach McBride handed out, where they knew and would tell you."
"Coach Pelini, he obviously understands it, but if he had been here all those years and understood it more, he would have addressed it a little differently."
Coach Pelini said himself that the awarding of jerseys was actually talked about in regards to their being awarded, everyone agreeing as to it staying part of the team. "It's something that's gone on here for a long time." he said of the tradition. "I understand the concept, so we decided to stay with it."
"I don't think I was obliged to do it, but it's a tradition here that the players felt strongly of, so obviously it was something we stayed with."
Adhering to tradition was important, but for Pelini, team unity was even more-so. As he indicated to players that they weren't to consider this a symbol that they were special in comparison to everyone else, he re-emphasized that this was to indicate who started, but that was it, always preaching that idea of unity came before individual honor. It's a concept that he thinks has sunk in. "I think that we've done that." Pelini said of maintaining the team unity. "I think everybody understood it and we've stressed that from day one."
"We've never separated anybody from the group and we never will. They understand that and there's no difference between guys that are blackshirts and guys that aren't blackshirts."
Controversy behind it's potential of hampering team unity and about it's overall importance in the end, the blackshirt tradition still remains one of the highest honors for players, even those that have become used to receiving it acknowledging it for what it really means. "Even though I got one last year, it feels like each year, it's kind of like a renewing feeling." Ryon Bingham said. "Everyone feels that."
"It's a great feeling."
Barrett Ruud reiterated that point. "It felt good to get it." he said. "It really is an honor. It means you've done some work and you've worked hard in this program and you are a starter."
LDE - Benard Thomas (first time recipient)
NT - Ryon Bingham
DT - LeKevin Smith (first time recipient)
RDE - Trevor Johnson
BUCK - T.J. Hollowell
MIKE - Barrett Ruud
WILL - Demorrio Williams
LCB - Fabian Washington
FS - Josh Bullocks (first time recipient)
SS - Philip Bland
RCB - Pat Ricketts - Lornell McPherson (starter in "Nickel Package")
- Trevor Johnson continues to practice well according to head coach, Frank Solich and is expected to be ready for the season-opener. "I was really pleased with his practice." Solich stated. "He should be ready to go."
- Nebraska has one more regular practice tomorrow, followed by a walk-thru on Friday in final preparation for their season-opener against Oklahoma State.
- Kickoff is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. and will be shown nationally on ABC.
- Nebraska is currently a 7 ½ point favorite over Oklahoma.
Steve Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 402-730-5619
You want to hear what some of the players said about receiving their blackshirts? Check out the RED ZONE, where we have sound bytes from a variety of players including first-timer, Josh Bullocks to blackshirt veterans, Barrett Ruud and Ryon Bingham.