Monday, August 10, 2009

Attitude change in full force for the Big Red

The start of fall practice is typically a preseason honeymoon period. Everyone’s undefeated. Everyone’s optimistic about the upcoming season.

The 2009 Nebraska Cornhuskers are no different entering head coach Bo Pelini’s second season. The buzzwords in a recent Lincoln Journal Star story were accountability, intensity, and team unity. The 2008 Huskers took a step in the right direction in Pelini’s first season, improving from 5-7 in 2007 under Bill Callahan to 9-4 last season. As fans, we all expect to see this theme carry over to the field. These qualities were desperately in the Callahan years.

We should see that attitude continue to pay off in 2009. The question is how much will it translate from a win-loss perspective? Just reading a few player sound bites are very telling:

“The other word we used all the time was “dominate,” Nebraska tight end Mike McNeill said. “And we did a good job of dominating our tasks this summer.”The Huskers had accountability for poor effort or tardiness, too. Senior safety Larry Asante said players who fell short of expectations, or were late, had to admit those mistakes in front of the whole team.Then the team would decide a punishment for the player. It was the kind of player accountability, Asante and wide receiver Menelik Holt agreed, that members of NU’s national championship teams in the 1990s had talked to them about in the spring. “Sometimes we’d make them stand there and watch us run,” said Asante, a member of the 2009 Unity Council. “It was kind of a mental thing, to make them sit on the side and watch us run. Because we are a team.”Holt, also on the Unity Council, said Pelini stressed that each Husker “learn how to be a man.”“Part of being a man is being accountable for your actions,” Holt said. “We hear that all the time. Pelini’s always teaching us about those characteristics like a father would. And I think you’ve seen our team change in our leaders and how they act. You saw the team also change. We hear that from the 95 team when those guys come in.

I like what I am hearing. If the seniors like Phillip Dillard, Ricky Thenarse, Asante and others buy into this and play up to their potential, this could be a special year. We have seniors with a ton of talent. I hope we get the quality senior leadership that has been absent for a long time in this program.

Listening to the players and reading what they say, it sounds to me like the players think they can improve on last year and that their coaches know how to get them there. They also sound like they've bought into Pelini's mantra of "compete every day to be accountable and to be a man."Again, I know it’s a happy time of the year and that the realities of the regular season are not here. I know the Kool-Aid is flowing abundantly but it’s also good to see that healthy mindset.

I think Dillard should be given a lot of credit. Dillard fell out of favor with the coaching staff for what most believe were weight and work ethic issues in spring football practices. With fall practices here, it appears that Dillard will be given every opportunity to earn his starting job back.

I don't know if it is Dillard's personality or the staff's approach to handling the situation or (probably) both, but I am very impressed with his reaction to the spring ball demotion.I hope he is able to make it back; I think he will contribute in some valuable ways this year. He may not start, but a great backup at that position is important, as is another good special teams player.

Maybe this group of coaches found a way to challenge and motivate him, or maybe the light just went on. I wasn't sure what to expect myself. Count me in the impressed category. If he's dropped that much weight and gained flexibility and speed as a result, he could be a surprise out of fall camp and have a great senior season.

At the worst, this gives us 3 viable options at the MIKE position in Colton Koehler, Will Compton, and Dillard. Compton's the future, so you get him the experience, but you don't want to beat him up too much if you don't have to and (knock on wood) we've had more than our share of injuries at the LB position over the course of the past few seasons. We need all the depth we can build and maintain. In a situation like we have with an inexperienced group to begin with, any injuries hurt that much more.

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