Published Tuesday, March 12, 2013 AT 11:59 AM / Updated at 1:00 PM
Spring Practice: Defense developing mental toughness
Jon Nyatawa Omaha World-Herald

Here’s how Saturday unfolded from a defensive player’s perspective: Lots of mid-practice yelling from coaches about how bad you are. Then more negative reviews in a post-practice on-field meeting. And presumably more chastising when Bo Pelini met with the unit later that afternoon.

Is it ever too much?

When the young players — who coaches know will inevitably mess up (A LOT!!!) — do end up stumbling all over themselves, how does Pelini or John Papuchis know whether to pick them up or berate them for the fall?

“That is a concern,” said Papuchis, the NU defensive coordinator. “One thing that you have to keep aware of the whole time is that they are fragile confidence-wise.”

There is plenty of room for patience with this group, according to Papuchis.

Unless, of course, the energy and effort isn’t up to Nebraska’s standard. Or players are showing lackluster attempts to fix the repeat errors. “There are certain things that I will not compromise on,” Papuchis said.

And that was apparently the issue during Saturday’s practice, which — at least for a day — was corrected by the players Monday.

Based on interviews Monday eventing, I’ve developed a list of four closely related keys associated with this spring-long cultivation of mental toughness (not necessarily the most titillating topic, obviously, but an important one in the early stages of development for this defense). Here’s what the guys are saying.

1. Play hard. Even when you’re playing poorly, even when you’re tired, even when the coaches are riding you. That’s what the veterans are hoping to see from the underclassmen. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, talk to somebody. They’ll tell you what to do,” junior cornerback Josh Mitchell said. “Just play fast.”

2. Be vocal. That’s out of character for most of the defense’s veterans. Senior Ciante Evans is trying. Senior Jason Ankrah, Mitchell, junior Harvey Jackson and sophomore David Santos are too. Their objective is to constantly remind the young guys about Key No. 1 (play hard, no matter what). Here’s Evans describing the role: “Be more active. Be more involved.” But … it’s up to everyone to be vocal.

3. Get out of your bubble. As an extension to No. 2 (be vocal), this is a tough one, even for the vets. According to Papuchis, there’s a human-nature tendency to take care of yourself and rest in your individual accomplishments. The players have to break that habit. And it’s not easy. But it’s necessary for this defense to work. “This game is about making sure all 11 guys are on the same page,” Papuchis said.

4. Don’t take it personal. Back to the lead-in for this blog. The coaches understand that with inexperience, mistakes are plentiful. But that doesn’t change their standard for practice performance. So they’re going to holler, scream and yell. As a player, you have to remind yourself of their intentions, according to Mitchell. “The coaches, they’re not getting on you because they’re mad at you. They’re getting on you because they can fix it,” Mitchell said. “You’ve just got to learn to not be sensitive.” … As a subplot to that, Evans has been telling all the young guys to have fun. Like when you first started playing the game, he said. Celebrate after big hits, knockdowns or turnovers. How Evans sees it: Act like you have swagger, and you never know, you might just get some. “I told them boys, ‘I don’t care if y’all get penalties for having enthusiasm. Just have fun,’” Evans said.

About Jon Nyatawa

Jon Nyatawa has covered local sports, primarily Nebraska football, for The Omaha World-Herald since 2008. He and his laptop, cell phone, tape recorder, pen and notebook all live in Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter: @JonNyatawa. Email him here: jon.nyatawa@owh.com. He welcomes feedback.