LINCOLN, Neb. — Bo Pelini is the most popular man in Nebraska. Just ask NU defensive end Trevor Johnson.
“The feeling around Nebraska right now is, Coach Pelini’s the man,” Johnson said.
Pelini, the No. 10 Huskers’ new defensive coordinator, coached for nine seasons in the National Football League. He has steadied the Blackshirts after a rocky 2002 season.
Nebraska finished 7-7 and No. 55 in the country in defense last season.
After five games this season, the Huskers are No. 1 in defense and are coming into Columbia on Saturday after their first shutout in three years, a 30-0 win against Troy State on Saturday.
Pelini had never been to Nebraska before the school hired him in December. He knew a little about the history of the Huskers, winners of three national championships in the past nine years, but he didn’t take that into consideration when trying to revitalize a defense that returns nine starters.
“I came in, and I didn’t know much about these guys, about our defense,” Pelini said. “I didn’t really concern myself about what happened last year. It was about establishing our system, and what we wanted to do now.
“We tried to fit in a system and build around our players’ strengths, and get them to buy into a new culture that we’ve tried to establish. I think we’ve done that.”
Johnson, a captain and two-year starter, describes Pelini’s coaching style as “calm, yet intense.” Nebraska players said Pelini shocked them the first time he met with them, but they quickly became excited about his plans.
Junior linebacker Barrett Ruud said Pelini often compares football to real life, so it was easy to trust him right away in spring practices and begin improving the defense.
“He’s one of those guys, he relates really well to people but yet he’ll still get on you,” Ruud said. “If a friend chews you out you’ll get kind of upset with him, but he has the right approach to be kind of a buddy but also a coach. If he chews you out, you’re really excited to go make up for it.”
This season, the Huskers play more zone defense and Pelini often sends speedy linebacker Demorrio Williams to rush the quarterback in pass situations. Williams is fourth in the Big 12 Conference in sacks with 5 1/2.
Ruud said the defense has improved its technique and knows how to better execute its assignments. Defensive line coach Jeff Jamrog agrees.
“Last year we played so much man-to-man coverage,” Jamrog said. “If you have 13 NFL players on your defense like we did in the ’97 team, some of those teams, maybe you can line up and do that, but we’re mixing it up more, keeping offenses off-balance.”
Nebraska has forced 19 turnovers this season and has scored 54 points off them. Last season, the Huskers scored 48 points off turnovers.
“You win the turnover battles, you’re going to win football games,” Pelini said. “We know that, that’s a big part of football. Hopefully we can keep that up.”
After Nebraska’s first game, a 17-7 win against Oklahoma State on Aug. 30 where the defense forced five turnovers, the players’ confidence climbed, Jamrog said.
“I think our players have really bought into what Bo Pelini’s having them do,” Jamrog said. “Once we played Oklahoma State, who’s a tremendous offensive football team, I think after that game, they believed everything we said.”