COLUMBIA — Zach Potter experienced everything that went wrong a year ago for the Nebraska defense.
For 11 games last season, Potter was a starter at defensive end. That meant he was a Blackshirt, a point of pride for Nebraska since 1964 when the tradition of giving defensive starters black practice jerseys began.
That all changed during the 2007 season.
Cracks started to appear in the Blackshirt defense. It gave up 49 points in a loss to Southern California and 40 in a win over Ball State. But because the Trojans were the nation’s top-ranked team and Nebraska defeated the Cardinals, the problems could've been viewed as trouble with a great team and a bad day against Ball State.
Then came MU. The Tigers had just entered the national rankings and celebrated it by whipping Nebraska 41-6.
“Last year, we went down there and didn’t perform the way we’d like to perform,” Potter said. “We didn’t play real well, and we got beat.”
The defensive problems became more apparent as the season went on. The Cornhuskers surrendered 35 or more points in four of their final six games, including 76 to Kansas and 65 to Colorado.
The Blackshirts were taken away, and former coach Bill Callahan was fired and replaced by Bo Pelini.
Those memories now seem far away to Potter.
“We played bad, so whenever something bad happens, you want to forget it as much as you can,” he said. “We’ve had four games this year, and I think we’ve played well at times. Having the new season start makes it easy to forget last year.”
But one link to the Callahan days and the 2007 disaster remains for the defense. Before the season started, Pelini announced that there would be no Blackshirts when the season started. Instead, his defense would have to earn the right to again be called Blackshirts. Pelini and his staff would decide when it had earned that right.
After four games, there has been no change in the first-string defense’s practice jerseys. Just as its backups wear red in practice so do the Cornhuskers' defensive starters.
Potter would love for that to change, but he agrees that the black jerseys must be earned.
“Obviously, the Blackshirts has a great history and is a great tradition that we have here at Nebraska,” he said. “There are some guys playing that are capable of Blackshirts, but there are some that aren’t. I think Coach Pelini is waiting to hand them out as a team, because it’s not really an individual thing, it’s the mentality of the defense.”
That mentality is almost completely different from that of the team MU easily defeated last year. Earlier in the week, MU offensive coordinator Dave Christensen said that there is little to gain from the tape of last season’s game because of how much the Cornhuskers' defense has changed.
“They’re a lot more disciplined than they were a year ago,” Christensen said. “They are a physical bunch, they run well and get to the ball. They don’t leave guys open. They’re just playing a lot more solid and a lot more physical.”
The new Nebraska defense has also gained the respect of MU quarterback Chase Daniel, a big difference from last season. After last year’s game, Daniel criticized former Nebraska defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove’s defensive schemes and compared them to something he had faced in high school.
“The players are in the right spot at the right time, they’re the ones making the tackles. If coach Pelini can get those guys in the right spot at the right time, they’re going to have a good chance” to succeed, Daniel said of the new defense.
So far, that’s happened at times for Nebraska, but the Cornhuskers haven’tperformed consistently enough to satisfy Pelini or themselves.
“There are mistakes that occur, a lot that are going down in numbers, but there are still mistakes that are hopping up there for the first time where guys are still adjusting,” Potter said. “It’s a process.”
Going through the process, rather than looking for a quick solution, appears to be the new Nebraska mentality under Pelini. Therefore, in Potter’s eyes, a win over MU would not be a sign that Nebraska is elite again, but merely getting closer.
“I think back is a big word, especially after the season we had last year,” Potter said. But "that definitely would point us in the right direction. Missouri’s a great team, to be able to knock them off up here would be great for the fan base and the whole state of Nebraska.”