Since about 2001 – somewhere between Chris Brown’s fourth touchdown and his sixth – Nebraska fans have pondered how to right the ship. They’ve actually known all along, whether they realize it or not.
“The Huskers need to get their swagger back!” – A familiar offseason battle cry for well over a decade now. The problem lies in the belief that a switch can be flipped, and suddenly athletes with the skill of Tommie Frazier and Ahman Green will take the field accompanied by the Blackshirts of yesteryear.
While the image of the wholesome walk-on is woven into the fabric of Nebraska football, the Cornhuskers’ greatest rewards have been reaped by teams that laughed off suggestions of being outmuscled or overmatched in mocking fashion.
An entire team team showed up to play, not just a handful of leaders. Whether it was in the eye of a familiar red storm at Memorial Stadium or deep within the snake pit of Norman, Oklahoma, there was an understanding.
Whether you were for or against the Big Red, one thing was certain – They strapped on pads to deal out damage for four quarters.
Over the years, announcers have often compared Nebraska football games to classic boxing matches – heavyweight brawls, especially against the likes of those very Sooners.
If the Huskers fell, so be it, but it was never an accepted outcome until the clock expired and their opponents headed to the ice tubs just as dinged up. That is swagger.
Define it however you want. At its core, true “swagger” is a rare breed of confidence and cockiness. When’s the last time you saw an entire Cornhusker team take every field in a single season like they owned the joint?
Rex Burkhead has his calm self-assurance, and yes there are a few seasoned leaders among some promising underclassmen, but the 2012 roster seems disjointed.
The Northwestern squad that visited Lincoln last year, they had Everlasts on. The bell barely rang before Wisconsin crushed the Huskers’ collective jaw with a powerful uppercut. Michigan made sure to stick and move before putting down their red-clad opponents.
Nebraska has the ability to reclaim this mentality again, and very important baby steps have begun in that direction. To say that the Huskers’ current recruiting efforts have been spirited is like suggesting that Einstein had a few good ideas.
The snowball has begun rolling, but it cannot stop.
Weight training, exercise, physical improvement, these are all well and good. Perhaps more than anything, Nebraska needs a severe mental adjustment.
Will Taylor Martinez step up and organize seven-on-seven workouts as was suggested during a recent ESPN roundtable?
Burkhead would show, but would Ameer Abdullah or Mike Marrow? What about Kenny Bell or any of the wide receivers? If No. 3 can command respect without the crack of the coaches’ familiar whip, true progress has been made.
10 offensive players who will join their quarterback on their own time and work for hours on end respect their signal-caller. If Martinez can’t get his huddle’s attention in May, not all of its members will be listening in September.
A team solidified on offense headed by a truly gifted athlete at quarterback, a do-it-all running back and a corps of dynamic skill players can shell opposing Big Ten defenses. This is assuming most plays run fluidly from Point A to Point B instead of resembling the jagged travel found in a simplified version of Connect the Dots.
Those T-shirts are right: Bo knows defense. 2011′s was perhaps one of the poorest defenses Pelini will field at Nebraska and several schools would’ve killed for its consistency. One that feeds from the offense’s success – and is well-rested thanks to long, sustained drives – will only assist the Huskers in their quest for greatness.
Make no mistake, this is a huge undertaking. The Huskers are trying to climb Everest and have been making it about three-fourths of the way to the summit before the expedition abruptly ended.
If these immense adjustments can be completed, the only incentive necessary to excel will be the game itself.
At that point, Nebraska will truly be playing against the world as they’ll be in the chase for crystal footballs and not their forgotten identity among the nation’s elite.