Eleven players receive jerseys after defense's best practice of season

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Nebraska's defense is back in black.

Eleven players have been awarded the coveted black practice jerseys that over the years have come to symbolize defensive excellence at Nebraska.

Head coach Bo Pelini and his coaching staff had held off awarding the shirts through the first 10 games. Typically, Blackshirts are passed out the week before the season opener.

It might seem an odd time to dole out the shirts. After all, the Huskers allowed 422 yards and 35 points in last Saturday's win over Kansas.

But defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said the staff met Sunday and decided the time was right.

"We thought the physical nature of the play on Saturday, the great effort our guys made running sideline to sideline, we felt that was a performance where they earned the Blackshirts," he said after practice Tuesday. "So we put them in their lockers today, and when they came out of meetings, they were waiting for them."

The recipients were ends Zach Potter, Pierre Allen and Clayton Sievers; tackles Ndamukong Suh and Ty Steinkuhler; linebackers Tyler Wortman and Phillip Dillard; cornerbacks Anthony West, Armando Murillo and Eric Hagg; and strong safety Larry Asante.

Carl Pelini said the defense turned in its best practice of the season.

"There were like 12 interceptions today," Murillo said. "I'm serious. We were all really motivated."

Now the challenge is to uphold the Blackshirt standard.

"As easily as they were given to us, they can just as easily be taken away if we don't perform to the level of a Blackshirt," Allen said.

The awarding of the black practice jerseys began in 1964 under coach Bob Devaney, who wanted to make it easier to identify his defensive players during practices.

Devaney sent an assistant coach to a Lincoln sporting goods store to buy practice jerseys for the defense. Unable to get enough jerseys of one color to outfit the entire squad, the decision was made to give black ones to the first-string players.

From there sprang one of the great traditions of not just Nebraska but all college football.

"It's such an honor to be part of something like that," Wortman said.

Pelini said in August that his defense would have to prove itself worthy of Blackshirts.

Last year the Huskers were 112th out of 119 Football Subdivision teams in total defense, 114th in scoring defense, 116th in rushing defense and 117th in turnover margin. The Huskers' averages of 37.9 points and 476.8 yards allowed were most since at least 1946.

On paper, the Huskers have made only modest gains this season. They're 81st in total defense and 89th in scoring defense. They allowed 52 points to Missouri and 62 to Oklahoma.

Murillo said the Huskers' defensive statistics are skewed compared with those from past years because the 2008 team is playing against a bevy of prolific spread offenses that are putting up big numbers against everybody.

Allen said he and his defensive mates know they need to make a lot of improvement.

"Just because we got our Blackshirts doesn't mean we're going to settle," he said. "We have to keep getting better and better every day. This is just more motivation."