LINCOLN –– One week after an alarming defensive performance against Wyoming, Nebraska coaches turned to roommates and true freshmen linebackers Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry to help turn the tide, thrusting the duo into the starting lineup against Southern Miss Saturday in Lincoln during NU’s 56-13 win.
Though coaches talk about the importance of competition in practice — guys pushing each other for playing time week to week — it may be hard to keep Banderas and Gerry off the field.
Banderas, a Lincoln Southeast graduate, started at middle linebacker for NU — essentially the quarterback spot on the Blackshirt defense — the guy who makes sure the defense is aligned properly.
Banderas finished the game with three tackles and a pass break up, while Gerry recorded three stops playing the outside backer spot.
Nebraska Head Coach Bo Pelini said Banderas earned the starting spot by his performance on the practice field.
“We base it on practices,” Pelini said. “Coming out of the week we went with who we felt gave us the best chance. For a freshman or redshirt freshman, it’s not easy. The thing that struck me with Josh is it wasn’t too big for him. He asks the right questions. He gets it. His potential and his ceiling is very high.
“I think the competition is making that group better.”
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said Banderas is not the typical freshman you hear about, who this time of year is swimming in all the mental aspects of college football.
“The thing about Josh is he’s way more mature than the average freshman,” Papuchis said. “He handled it well and not everybody can do that.”
The Nebraska defense held Southern Miss to just 284 total yards, picked off three passes and recorded one sack.
Gerry, a Sioux Falls, S.D., recruit said he and Banderas spent a lot of time in the film room and preparing each other mentally. Plus, he said the Memorial Stadium crowd didn’t seem as loud in week two, making it easier to communicate on the field.
“Coaches say all the time that it’s just like practice,” he said. “Last week, we didn’t perform the way we wanted to perform. We’ve got to take each week, week by week. I was happy coach gave me an opportunity, and I was just going out and doing my job. The thing I’ve learned about college is it’s all about the mental.
“We took a big step. I feel like when we get all the little things cleared up, we’ll be a good defense.”
Nebraska senior corner Ciante Evans said he noticed a big sense of urgency among his defensive teammates in practice this week, including from the younger players.
“The young guys just want to pick up the slack and not be considered young anymore,” he said.
Evans said he thought Banderas played like a veteran.
“He took control at Mike,” Evans said. “He was in command today and he put guys in position. When you’re young you don’t know a lot. I think he did a good job and handled it well.”