JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The head coach wasn't there, and neither was the defensive coordinator. Even so, it was business as usual for Nebraska in its first official bowl practice at the University of North Florida Saturday in Jacksonville.
With Bo Pelini and Carl Pelini both back in their hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, while attending their father's funeral, the rest of NU's coaching staff picked up the slack to run practice in their absence.
Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson led the offense as usual, an defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders took over the defense. Linebackers coach Mike Ekeler and defensive line coach John Papuchis also helped fill the void.
The role wasn't anything new for Sanders, who served as North Carolina's defensive coordinator from 2004-06. He also coached defensive ends and outside linebackers while an assistant at New Mexico State before coming to Nebraska in 2003.
"I didn't take over, I just maintained," Sanders said. "We just practiced. It went good. We had them out here for a couple hours, and we had to get a lot of work done. This is a game week, of course, and we had to treat this like we normally would on a Tuesday. I think our players responded well. They practiced hard. They've got to get used to this temperature out here a little bit, but I don't think they had any problems with it."
Though the Pelinis weren't there, that didn't mean the Huskers got off with an easy practice by any means. In fact, the team essentially opened up the day with a "good-on-good" scrimmage, with the first-team offense and defense squaring off.
For the players, starting off the week with an intense scrimmage like that was the perfect way to set the tone for their bowl preparation.
"I think we got out there hard," junior safety Larry Asante said. "Coach (Sanders) said yesterday that we were going to have a scrimmage going with the ones against the ones, kind of get the blood going again. I think we came out and got after it. It was a good start."
Asante said he didn't notice much of a difference at all despite not having either Pelini brother at practice.
"(Sanders) knows the defense just as well as Coach Bo, so we didn't really miss a beat," Asante said.
Sanders said taking charge of the defense for the day was an easy task when considering how well the Huskers know their practice responsibilities. He said the players have learned their practice routines so well over the course of the season that it was merely a case of him supervising the defense than anything else.
"One thing that Coach (Bo) has done so well this year is that we have a structure," Sanders said. "I'm not saying the program will run itself, but he's put us into a structure to where it's a Tuesday practice, and everybody understands what a Tuesday practice entails. It's good when you have a structure like that."
Barfield's patience rewarded with a Blackshirt
As senior defense end Shukree Barfield walked towards the locker room to get dressed for Saturday's practice, Papuchis notified him that he had a surprise waiting for him in his locker.
That surprise was a shiny new Blackshirt hanging in his locker.
It was the perfect reward for Barfield, who stuck it out and never complained despite seeing only limited playing time early on in his final collegiate season.
"Coach (Papuchis) told me he had a surprise for me, and I was like, 'What is it?'" Barfiled said. "And he was like, 'You got a Blackshirt.' And I was like, 'Yeah?' And I was kind of happy, because I see everybody else out here with one, and you know the tradition here with the Blackshirts is very important, so to be a part of that is kind of special."
After a frustratingly slow start, this season has progressively gotten better by the week for the 6-foot-4, 282-pounder from Camden, N.J. Though he played in 11 games this year, Barfield never achieved his goal of becoming a starter on NU's defensive line.
Even so, he was able to finish the year with three sacks to rank fourth on the team. His biggest game of the season came in the Huskers' win over Colorado, where he sacked CU quarterback Cody Hawkins twice on the Buffaloes' final drive to help seal a huge victory that led to Nebraska's Gator Bowl berth.
"That's probably one of the main reasons why I got one," Barfield said. "Whenever I get in, I make plays. That's my No. 1 priority. When I do get in, I make plays. I couldn't be a starter this year, but at the same time, I'm just happy to be winning, man. I'm going to do whatever I can to help my team win."
Sanders said Barfield's determination played a big role in catching the coaching staff's attention and leading them to reward him with a Blackshirt.
"I think he's worked his butt off," Sanders said. "The young man has been here, and he's persevered through a lot of stuff for us. I think that young man deserves it."
Barfield said he noticed an immediate difference in his intensity on the practice field while wearing his new Blackshirt for the first time.
"Of course it's going to make you go a little harder," Barfield said. "Having a Blackshirt, you've got to go 100 percent on every play, so that's what I tried to do out there today."
After seeing hardly any playing time early in the season at defensive tackle, head coach Bo Pelini and his staff decided to move Barfield over to defensive end prior to Nebraska's game against Missouri.
Part of the reason was to help provide some depth at defensive end, where NU was hit by the injury bug at the time with the loss of senior Barry Turner for the season and sophomore Pierre Allen dinged up.
Along with the move, Barfield dropped his weight down from 297 pounds to 282 simply by eating healthy. Now, he says he's never felt better physically.
While he said in retrospect he wished he made the move to defensive end sooner, Barfield is happy with the way his career as a Husker is coming to an end. If they can go out and get a victory over Clemson, it would make it even better.
For Barfield, winning has always been his best motivation.
"Anytime you can win, all the other stuff you can just block out," he said. "Just winning. I think being around these guys more, we got closer with each other. They've been motivating me, supporting me. It's helped a lot."
***While Barfield getting a Blackshirt was obviously a nice sight, the question of whom he replaced comes into play. When Bo Pelini first handed out the jerseys prior to the Kansas State game, he said there would only be 11 of them, and they wouldn't necessarily just be for the starters.
Sophomore cornerback Eric Hagg was one of the few non-starters to earn a Blackshirt that week, but Sanders said Hagg lost his Blackshirt quite a while ago, well before Barfield got his on Saturday.
Sanders said he wasn't sure whether Hagg's Blackshirt was given to someone else before Barfield, meaning the Huskers might have had only 10 players with Blackshirts prior to Saturday.
***Bo and Carl Pelini are expected to join the team in Jacksonville sometime Saturday night, and Sanders said the coaching staff plans to meet and watch film from Saturday's practice tonight. The coaches will then meet with the players Sunday morning before their 9:30 a.m. practice.
***Saturday was undoubtedly one of the warmest practices the Huskers have had in months, as the high in Jacksonville got up to the mid-80s. However, player reactions to the warm temps were a bit mixed.
"I'm from New Jersey," Barfield said. "I hate the heat. I like the cold. I don't like the heat."
***Seemingly all of the players enjoyed the way the Huskers opened Saturday's practice with the good-on-good scrimmage.
"It was a blast," senior offensive lineman Matt Slauson said. "I had a lot of fun coming out here in the heat, something we haven't done in a long time. Coming out here and going as hard as we can and tackling and hitting, it was great
If you have to go 100 miles per hour right out of the gate, then you're going to have a good practice. That's exactly what we had."
Said Barfield: "We haven't hit nobody for a long time, so just to go out there and have contact again was nice. It's always nice when you can hit somebody."
***While some players and coaches have big recreation plans for their week in Florida, some players like Slauson are a bit more content with just taking it easy. And maybe wrestling a few alligators, too.
"I know I'm going to take a nap," Slauson said of his plans for the day following Saturday's practice. "I might go the beach and do a little swimming. Maybe go wrestle some alligators."
Though the team is staying at a hotel with a first-class golf course, Slauson said he didn't have any plans to hit the links this week.
"I'm not much of a golfer," he said. "I might go out to the range with a baseball bat or something and hit a few balls. But no, I'm not much of a golfer."
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