If Bo Pelini is feeling any pressure in Lincoln this spring to deliver a championship, you couldn't tell by the way Nebraska started spring practice. The Huskers coach participated in a Harlem Shake video with the team over the weekend, with Pelini sending up his own fiery image before dancing with his players.
I caught up with Pelini after Nebraska's first spring practice to ask about the spring and how he plans to replace eight starters on defense. Here is that conversation.
How did the "Harlem Shake" video come about?
Bo Pelini: We were just having some fun with it. It was actually my daughter, she just turned 12, she had a sleepover the night before. And her and her friends, they'd been telling me what this "Harlem Shake" thing was and they were showing it to me. And I thought it was a good idea, that our kids would have fun with this. We had fun with it, and it was something different.
Was that a way to loosen things up as you get started with practice?
BP: No doubt. The team, they had a good time. It was fun. I'm just glad I didn't throw my back out. It was probably the first time I'd danced since my wedding.
It looked like you had some pretty good moves.
BP: Yeah, right. You know better than that.
What are some of your main goals and objectives this spring?
BP: Just get these guys taught and develop their understanding. We've got kind of an interesting mix of youth and experience. I think it's a very talented group, a pretty explosive group of athletes. We've got a lot of guys who've got a lot to learn. Even on the offensive side, where we have some experience coming back, per se, and some guys who have been through it, in this day and age you've got to keep building depth. Every guy out there you've got to try and get taught, and get as many guys out there that you trust as possible.
As a coach, is it kind of exciting to be able to work with a young group that has some athleticism on defense?
BP: Oh, no doubt. It's going to be fun. This a real eager group and a real hard working group. These kids want to play. They're eager, they soak in everything you tell them. Sometimes guys get to a point in their career where they think that they know. These kids know they don't know. They're like sponges right now. It's a fun time to work with them and help them develop into the kind of players they can be.
Given how much experience you have on offense, will you spend more time than normal with the defense this spring?
BP: Yeah, that's where I spend the majority of my time anyway, but it makes sense to get as many eyes and extra teachers on that side of the ball. That will help us. We feel good about where we are offensively and what that potential is; now we've just got to match that up with what we think we can do defensively. And I think we have a chance to be pretty damn good.
I saw a quote where one of your players said the young defenders might make mistakes, but they'll make them going 100 mph. Is that kind of what you're looking for, that they may not all get it right away but that they can make up for that with their speed and athleticism?
BP: Absolutely. And to a certain extent it's our job to try not to weigh them down. Don't get them thinking. Kind of the message is, I told them, "You're not going to be perfect. But play fast. Believe in what you see. We'll get you coached up, but don't go out there thinking. Go out there and believe in your preparation, believe in what you're learning, trust your learning and go out there and play fast and make plays." That's kind of been the common theme, and I saw a lot of that the other day.
The defensive line and safety are two areas hit hard by graduation. What do you see out of those positions this spring?
BP: I think we have guys that may be a little more dynamic athletically than what we've been. And we have some guys who we think can really do some things. It's going to be interesting to watch their development and how they continue to respond. We've moved some guys around. We have a lot of options in the secondary. A few years ago when we we were in the Big 12, we were recruiting more in the secondary than we were at linebacker, which is why we're a little bit younger at linebacker. We have a few more options in the secondary and guys that can do a lot of different things and play multiple spots, so that helps you.
Is there a whole lot of competition this spring, given how many starting jobs are open on defense?
BP: Absolutely. Like I told our guys, "Don't worry where you're lining up on the depth chart. Worry about taking care of yourself and your reps. Concentrate on making yourself a better football player." At the end of the day, it's only 15 practices. These jobs aren't going to be won or lost this time of year. Now we're going to make some strides, and maybe certain guys put themselves in position to be starters. But there's a lot of football to be played and a lot of practices to be had before we actually kick this thing off at the end of August. So if every guy just concentrates on making themselves better and tries to make the most out of every single rep that we have, then that's going to give them the best opportunity to grow as a football player and be ready to play in the fall.
You're going to be doing more live contact stuff than usual this spring, right?
BP: Yeah. We're going to do a little bit more scrimmaging maybe than we have in the past and really have a nice, good physical spring to try and put guys in position to see who can do it live, who's going to be able to make plays in space. Defensively, who's going to be able to make those one-on-one tackles when they find themselves in those positions? You want to take the guesswork out of it, see that guy, if he was there, would he have finished it off? Well, we're going to be asking them this spring to finish it off and see where they are. It's one of the reasons we went a little bit earlier in the spring than we have in the past, so we can be physical and then split up our spring with the spring break. We'll have eight practices before spring break and seven after, to give our guys a little bit of a break in there so we can make the most out of every opportunity we have.
Jason Ankrah is one of your few veterans up front defensively and a guy you're counting on as a leader. What do you see for him this spring and this season?
BP: He is a leader. He's been around, he's played a lot of football for us. He's looking to embrace that type of role, and he's got that kind of influence in the locker room. He's got the ability and the experience that guys are going to look to him. Some guys embrace that, some guys don't. It's got to be in your personality. He's looking forward to it, and I think that will be big. We had some leadership walk out the door. So we have to make sure we have guys who are ready, willing and able to step into that role.
You've got a lot of guys on offense where you pretty much know what you're going to get, like Taylor Martinez, Ameer Abdullah, Kenny Bell, Spencer Long. Do you hold them out of the live stuff and focus on younger players this spring because of that, or do they still need those reps?
BP: A little bit of both. We want to continue to develop our depth on that side. But the bottom line is, you've got to continue to get better. Even a guy like Taylor, as much football as he's played here, there are a lot of things he still needs to continue to work on to get better at. So there are going to be certain times and certain situations, just like any spring, where you take some guys out who have played a lot of football and maybe not get them as banged up as much, and that gives you a chance to look at some younger guys and build depth. But there are going to be some times where they're right in the thick of it.
What is the next step forward for Taylor?
BP: Just like any quarterback, it's such a difficult position, so much goes into it. Continue to work on being efficient and on decision-making. Eliminate turnovers and just continue to manage the offense. He has such confidence in himself that sometimes he tries to win the game by himself. As a quarterback, you've got to continue to let the offense work for you and let the game come to you. You don't need to try and win the game on every play. It all comes down to decision-making and managing the game, managing the offense. I think he made a lot of strides last year, but like any guy who's a young football player -- and all these guys are still young, they're all still learning how to play the game -- he has a ways to go in that regard.
The receiver group was impressive last year, and almost all those guys are back. How much potential does that group have this year?
BP: It's a dynamic group, and I think they got better last year. I thought they played very well. You look at it, and we still have some youth there. We have to continue to build that depth over there. We got hit hard with injuries. In the early games, we had a bunch of guys catching passes, but it was just one of those things where you got a bunch of injuries at the wide receiver spot. But we think we have some other guys who can spell those guys, and if that's the case and they can take some snaps off them and keep them fresh throughout the game, that will make them that much more effective.
Imani Cross did some great work at the goal line last year. How much more can he add to his game this spring and offseason?
BP: He's looking good. He's -- not noticeably, because he's such a big thick guy -- but he's carrying less weight, and he's slimming down a little bit. I think he has a chance to really be a good football player for us and do some things. Not be just a short-yardage guy, but a guy who can carry the ball and help us in a lot of different areas and a lot of different situations. I think he's got that in him, and we can really expand his role. I think he's excited to do that, and he's determined to do that.
Finally, you lost a very valuable special-teams player in kicker/punter Brett Maher. Is that an area you can figure out this spring, or will that have to wait until fall camp?
BP: It probably won't be settled until this fall, but we have some good competition there. We've got some kids coming in, too. I think it's going to be good competition. The talent is there. We have guys that can do it. But having that consistency ... we've been really fortunate that we haven't had to worry about it the past couple years. We had Alex [Henery] and then went right into having Brett. So we've been very fortunate in that regard. This year, the job is open, and the competition will go right to the end. Obviously, to win a championship, you'd better have somebody in that kicking mode that you can trust.