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2010 Sep 08

NEBRASKA FOOTBALL: Anatomy of Two Starters

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By HuskerLocker

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Helpless. As he stood over a teammate, all Nebraska linebacker Alonzo Whaley could think was that he didn’t want to be there. Not on a Thursday, not in the training room, not watching frustration set in on the face of Will Compton, who’d just hurt his foot badly enough - just two stinking days before the season opener - that he’d miss the next several weeks of the game he’d practiced all winter and summer to play.

Compton was Whaley’s roommate. And more.

“To me Will is like a brother,” Whaley said.

Whaley didn’t want to watch this. And, in the moment, he didn’t damn well care what it meant for his own career. It would take a brother to make him realize that.

***

Helpless. As a teammate hovered above him, all Rickey Thenarse could think was that he didn’t want to be there. Not two weeks after shredding his ACL, not in the training room, not feeling the blood drain from his face as he undertook the long, arduous task that is knee rehabilitation. It was fall 2009 and NU defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was attempting to cheer Thenarse up.

Suh had also torn his ACL and after two weeks - because he’s a limber giant and all-around freak of nature - he had extension back in his knee. Thenarse was two weeks to a month away from that. And even when that extension came back, it hurt like hell. Four months, and it still ached and throbbed like a piece of pounded meat.

It was tough. Even for Thenarse, who’s seen it and lived it in Los Angeles - it was tough.

“I thought I was never going to get back,” he said. “I told myself if this ever happened again I am quitting football. I almost gave up everything.”

***

Whaley in the car, driving Compton home. Compton, blunt and rugged, doesn’t dress it up.

You don’t have time to feel emotions, Compton tells Whaley. Will could talk like this. It’s just not important. Step up. Next guy in line. That’s you.

“Will was like a coach,” Whaley recalled.

The sophomore from Madisonville, Texas didn’t know what to think. He’d been backing up Compton in practice, but it wasn’t like anybody had told him he’d replace Compton now. Nebraska’s coaching staff was so plugged into competition, it could be mercurial like that. Bo Pelini was mercurial like that, able to adjust and reassemble schemes, plans and assignments so quickly, safety Matt O’Hanlon once said, that defenders sometimes didn’t bother for an explanation. They just listened to the guy.

Compton kept working on Whaley, who didn’t sleep much that night. Anxious. Excited. He woke up at 6:30 the next morning.

Normally, Whaley was scheduled to show up on Fridays at 10:30 a.m. for meeting. But linebackers coach Mike Ekeler called him. Make sure you come in at 10. Whaley had just been handed what Ekeler calls the keys to a 1968 Corvette Stingray. Nebraska’s defense.

“They never came out and told me I was starting the next day,” Whaley said.

***

Car crash. That’s how Thenarse would make a tackle. Smash-up, takedown, blammo, goodnight. See if you can take that. Off the field, Thenarse talks slowly, methodically, like a snake coiling in desert sun, the better to strike in those three hours between the lines. His high school reels are something to behold, a kid on fire, a torpedo with malicious intent. His hits crushed atoms.

“Just get on the field and make a play,” he said of those days. “It was never a team defense or a system defense.”

He rolled the dice on that style at NU. For every spectacular play, there was a missed assignment or a shoulder that got jacked up because college running backs are built by strength gurus into compressed pieces of stone. It worked on special teams, the kamikaze act. But safety requires strategic tackling, angles and deft movements. You won’t often get a blow-up shot. But you might grab hold of an ankle that saves a touchdown.

And so Thenarse, laid up with an injury anyway, began to watch O’Hanlon and Larry Asante play the position. He watched Dejon Gomes, team Houdini, make plays with flick of his wrist. He watched the Huskers, seek, separate and destroy with skill and precision, the way Pelini drew it up.

And he bought it.

“I wanted to play team defense and be that guy who is consistent and not that guy who just wants to make that play and have a big hit,” Thenarse said. “Because that doesn't get you anywhere, and it doesn't get you on the field.”

***

Friday night, and Whaley is jammed into a hotel room with Compton, LaVonte David and Mathew May. Poring over calls. Schemes. Whaley doesn’t linger for too long. He wants to sleep. He doesn’t much. But he’s calmer than he was 24 hours ago. It’s sinking in. After playing little as a freshman, two injuries have opened the door to Whaley starting his first game well ahead of schedule, in front of 86,000.

***

Friday night, and Thenarse wonders if he’s the starter or still under the radar as the “other guy” at safety, still clinging to a bad rap that he can’t play well within the scheme. He goes relatively unnoticed by the sportswriter hacks, who instead focus on Gomes, P.J. Smith and Anthony West.

“He committed himself to learning the system and the light bulb really went on for him this camp,” defensive coordinator Carl Pelini said. “It didn’t surprise any of us. We knew he’d be right there going in.”

Said Thenarse: "I was kind of the underdog. I felt like the underdog.”

But Thenarse has been working with the ones, and he has a hunch he’ll get the nod. Again, nary a coach tells him.

Then he sees his name on the HuskerVision screen before the game. He knows he won’t have to call anybody back home in LA. They’ve ordered the game. They’ll see what he experiences.

A ton of chop blocks.

Western Kentucky goes right after his knees. Over and over. You don’t get them in fall camp. What offensive linemen wants to be responsible for ruining a defensive player’s career?

“Probably more than I've ever gotten chop-blocked in a game,” he said.

Eight times in the first half. Zero in the second. The learning curve has accelerated.


***

Whaley will laugh one day about that first start.

“The game played a lot slower than I expected,” he said.

But the defensive calls from the sidelines came in, perhaps, a little faster. He struggled at times to get his team aligned correctly. The Brothers Pelini believe in matching up defensive personnel to offensive sets, which means making a defensive call often just seconds before the snap. Gotta have that last chess move.

A couple times, Whaley said, he got too locked in on his assignment. Others, he failed to see the whole call from the sideline. The latter problem created WKU’s 47-yard run. The modern game is as much logistics as playmaking. In a few years, it’ll be resolved with headsets inside a player’s helmet, like NFL teams employ. For now, Whaley must catch relayed signals the first time, without errors.

But he saw everything. He stuck his nose in on several hard tackles. He got caught in the wake of a good playaction fake. He pursued sideline-to-sideline and downfield. All in a relatively risk-free environment that comes with Steve Pederson’s parting gift of a weak home non-conference schedule.

Afterward, Compton met him riding a scooter. Ekeler grabbed him. There’s nothing like experience.

***

When Thenarse laughs, it is measured into a small chuckle. Of the safeties who played in Saturday’s game, he arguably made the fewest mistakes and even got to turn back into Torpedo Ricky for a jet sweep or two. He sits in front of the media on Tuesday - one of the few times he’s been invited in front of the whole press, and reflects on his return from a point where he considered quitting.

He squints a little. Pauses. The snake, enjoying the cool of the moment.

"It feels good,” he says. “It just feels good."

Tags: wku game, rickey thenarse, alonzo whaley

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