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Nebraska's Blackshirts put on hold

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 | 10:48 p.m. CDT

LINCOLN, Neb. — The Nebraska defense’s “Blackshirt” tradition hasn’t ended, but it’s definitely on hold.
As of midweek, new coach Bo Pelini had not handed out the coveted black practice jerseys to Nebraska’s defensive starters, and he says it’s possible there will be no Blackshirts for Saturday’s opener against Western Michigan. Or for the next game, or the next.
The Huskers’ defenders apparently haven’t proved themselves worthy yet.
“What’s a Blackshirt mean if it’s just a symbol you haven’t earned?” Pelini said.
For five decades people in college football have known the Huskers’ defensive starters as the “Blackshirts.” The term has come to symbolize a spirit of relentless, hard-nosed play for which Nebraska has long prided itself.
“That black shirt represents dependability, trust, a sense that teammates can depend on me to do everything in my power to play the best defense known to mankind,” said former Blackshirt Broderick Thomas, a two-time All-America outside linebacker who played 10 years in the NFL. “It’s about accountability.”
The Blackshirt spirit was broken last season.
The Huskers were 112th out of 119 major college 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. The average of 232.2 yards rushing allowed was the most since 1958.
As embarrassing as the numbers was the unit’s lack of passion under former coordinator Kevin Cosgrove. Missouri hung 41 points on the Huskers, Oklahoma State 45, Kansas 76 and Colorado 65.
A slew of former players called for the players to be stripped of their black shirts. That happened three days after a 45-14 loss to Oklahoma State — a game in which the Cowboys led 38-0 at halftime on their way to the largest rout of the Huskers in Lincoln in 49 years.
So the Blackshirts remain packed away in storage, and no one on the defense is protesting.
“Me personally, I think we need a game or two or three or four or five to prove not only to ourselves but to our coaches and fans that we deserve them,” nose tackle Ndamukong Suh said.
The awarding of the black practice jerseys began in 1962 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 in college football.
Most of the defensive starters have been determined, but until those black practice jerseys are bestowed, they can’t call themselves Blackshirts.
Pelini, who immersed himself in Blackshirt culture as coordinator of Nebraska’s vaunted 2003 defense, has grown weary of being asked about when he’ll announce the chosen ones.
“Everybody wants to rush this thing,” he said. “It was the same way when I was here the first time. I don’t see the point of it if you just hand them out to hand them out. I’m looking for them to be earned.”
Thomas said he agrees with Pelini’s decision and calls it great motivation.
“I do believe these kids will step up. They will,” Thomas said. “They didn’t go to the University of Nebraska to be regular guys. They came to be something special, to win championships. That’s where the bar was set. We have to give them a little time. They’re going to get it right.”


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