Seniors take center stage

On Saturday, 29 seniors will play their final game at Memorial Stadium and 24 are fifth-year seniors who came on as part of Bo Pelini’s first recruiting class.

Pelini and his seniors spent some time reflecting on the past five years at Monday’s weekly press conference.

Nebraska hired Pelini in early Dec. 2007, giving him a little over a month to salvage what was left of a highly-touted recruiting class and try to add his own mix of players while also coaching the LSU defense in the 2008 BCS National Title Game.

“We kind of walked into a fairly tough situation to put that class together quickly,” Pelini said. “They’ve accomplished a lot. It’s a tremendous group of kids, not just as football players, but, more importantly, as kids who have represented this program.”

While many of Nebraska’s recruits jumped ship after Bill Callahan was fired, senior linebacker Will Compton stayed on board but not without wavering.

“I stayed committed but I was looking elsewhere,” he said. At one point, Compton told his mother that was now considering Illinois, Missouri and Notre Dame over Nebraska.

“She started crying,” Compton said. “She really liked the staff and Coach Bo. She thought I was making a mistake.”

Compton was ultimately swayed back to Nebraska after Pelini sent his defensive staff to Compton’s home to watch the title game that year. He was one of 28 in Pelini’s first class.

Twenty-five of those players will walk out on Tom Osborne field for the last time against Minnesota this week. Pelini said it wasn’t always easy stockpiling redshirts that first year. The 2007 defense Pelini inherited ranked as the worst in school history.

“I was trying to get a lay of the land,” Pelini said. “It was kind of hard to do at that time. We were trying to build something for the future and, as it turns out, I think that was the right decision.”

This year’s class is the largest at Nebraska since 2007 and has compiled 46 wins over the past five seasons but that’s not the ultimate measure of success according to Pelini.

“It goes way beyond football and well beyond wins and losses,” he said. “The one thing that got Coach Osborne and I on the same page right from day one was being in this for something much bigger than football. It’s about preparing kids for the rest of their life. It’s not about just winning or playing the game, it’s about how you do things.”

The senior class also includes two junior college transfers in Joseph Carter and Daimion Stafford  as well as three players — P.J. Mangieri, Eric Martin and Rex Burkhead — who played as true freshmen in 2009. Burkhead is hoping to get back on the field for the first time since re-injuring his knee four weeks ago against Northwestern. He is expected to return to limited action in practice on Monday and will be evaluated later in the week to determine if he’ll be available on Saturday.

The group will have a chance to go out on a few clear signs of progress from when Pelini took over. With a win on Saturday, the Huskers will become the first team to go undefeated at home since the 2001 team. Should Nebraska make it to the Big Ten championship game and win, it would be the Huskers’ first conference title since 1999.

No need to remind the veterans, of course. They’ve been here before.

“We’re trying to make these last weeks as memorable as we can,” Compton said. “We’ll remember this month in particular for the rest of our lives.”