Saturday is Bill Busch’s first game as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator. It’s not his first stint with Nebraska, nor is it anywhere close to an uncomfortable environment as a native of Pender and Nebraska Wesleyan graduate.
He’s Nebraska’s second defensive coordinator this season. His move paved the way for Joey Connors to become the team’s second special teams coordinator since January. Those changes came a week after Mickey Joseph took over as interim head coach. This is all after the coaching staff shakeups former head coach Scott Frost implemented at the end of last season.
Players who remain on the team since the start of the 2021 season are now part of something almost entirely different. Busch marveled at their resiliency after Wednesday’s practice and underlined his pride in coaching them.
“Guys, they’ve been through a lot,” Busch said. “There’s been some lack of success, there’s been changes at the head coach level, defensive coordinator level, there’s been tough losses, there’s been some rough halftimes.
“Wow, have these players responded.”
Frost often complimented the team’s leadership in fall camp. This was the best group of leaders he ever coached at Nebraska, he said. The season’s first month tested that leadership.
Two of the team’s four captains missed half the games this season. Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor, edge rusher captains who’ve got the fuzzy end of the lollipop so many times, have started each game as the Husker defense surrendered yards.
Tannor took ownership earlier this year for not getting his teammates ready to make plays. Nelson, a homegrown Husker and defensive leader, routinely stumps for the team’s unity. He’s taken ownership for many aspects of the season so far while rallying teammates forward.
“As a leader, gotta keep the drum beat, get back to work,” Nelson said after the Georgia Southern loss. “Don’t need to change my attitude on what we’re doing. Just be Garrett.”
Fellow captain Nick Henrich returned from a wrist injury to play Oklahoma. He watched North Dakota and Georgia Southern games from the sidelines, both with their respective frustrations. When he returned he played for a different head coach.
“It’s definitely been a challenging week for us. A lot of these players on the team had coach Frost sit in our living room and recruit us,” Henrich said after the Oklahoma game. “We believed in him and now we really believe in coach Joseph and what he is doing. It’s been a tough week but I think the guys did a good job of sticking together.”
Henrich reiterated there was no quit in Nebraska. If the program was falling on hard times then it was the players’ responsibility to fix it.
Fellow team captain Travis Vokolek returned from his own nagging ankle injury in time to play Oklahoma. That was an emotional week. His father, D.J., is a football coach and an assistant on staff. He understands the business beyond the game. So the team mourned and marched forward.
“We are obviously upset, but we have to move on,” Vokolek said after Oklahoma. “Coach Mickey is a great coach. I love him to death and I’m glad he’s on our football team. I can’t wait for the future football program.”
It’s an unknown future at this point. Joseph, the coaching staff and the players are coming together to build a winning team during the remaining nine games. Meanwhile, there’s a national head coaching search and social media rampant with rumors. It’s exactly what athletic director Trev Alberts forecasted in his public address press conference when Frost was fired.
They can’t be worried about that. Joseph’s told them to block out the noise. Everything worth focusing on is internal, at practice and on game day.
What may have seemed at the time as a talking point from the final Frost days is now a necessity. Gut-wrenching, battering results and national speculation have pounded the Huskers. At the end there’s light and another Saturday to prove themselves.
“I would say that is pretty much where we have tried to keep everybody’s head at in the locker room,” sophomore Marques Buford said on Tuesday. “We know that the coaches we have on this staff are great people. They are great coaches. We just have to trust them and trust that they have our best interests and that they are going to do everything to put us in the right positions because at the end of the day all they can do is put us in the position and we have to go out on the field and make the plays.”