- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- The question, in an era not so long past, required minimal deliberation.
When to trade the long-term benefit of a redshirt season for the chance to contribute as a true freshman?
Answer: Only if necessitated by a lack of depth or in the instance of extreme readiness. Such a philosophy helped construct championship-caliber football teams.
Patience is no longer the standard. Alabama played 11 true freshmen en route to a second straight national title last year. Sixteen rookies saw time at Ohio State a year ago in its undefeated season.
Once, no program reaped the rewards of redshirting more than Nebraska.
And in five seasons under coach Bo Pelini, the Huskers have largely remained conservative in using first-year players. Since 2008, 25 true freshmen, including three walk-ons, burned redshirts. Last year, it was five, though defensive end Avery Moss preserved his status with a medical waiver after a September shoulder injury ended his season.
This fall, though, the outlook appears different. As many as a dozen newcomers, including three junior college transfers, remain in contention to play as the 18th-ranked Huskers open Saturday against Wyoming at Memorial Stadium.
Primarily, this group arrived more prepared, Nebraska coaches said. The Huskers also need help, in particular among the front seven on defense. And Pelini’s staff may take a more liberal stance in its redshirt decisions after a lack of defensive depth burned the Huskers late last season.
A weary unit surrendered 115 points and more than 1,200 yards to Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. It marked the first time in school history that Nebraska scored at least 30 points in consecutive games and lost both.
So now, if they’re ready and they can help, they’re going to play.
“We’re not going to lower the expectations because we’re young,” secondary coach Terry Joseph said. “They've had to get in there and learn on the run.
“It starts with coach Pelini. One thing that we want with the guys that we’re recruiting is they have to love football, love competing, love studying, love lifting weights, love getting better. That’s what you have with these guys. They love being around the game.”
Freshmen Maliek Collins, A.J. Natter and Kevin Maurice have performed well up front on defense, where Nebraska lost Kevin Williams to a season-ending knee injury and can’t rely too heavily on senior Thad Randle, burdened by knee problems. Collins, Natter and Maurice may get to play; defensive end Randy Gregory, No. 2 in ESPN’s JC 100 last year, is a lock.
Linebackers Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry are pushing for time. Fellow linebacker Courtney Love, slowed this month by a hamstring injury, could work his way into contention along with safety D.J. Singleton.
Freshmen running backs Adam Taylor and Terrell Newby look set to make an impact. Same goes for versatile tight end Cethan Carter. Gabe Miller was recruited to step in at long snapper. Receiver Kevin Gladney and offensive tackle David Knevel have earned praise.
You see, there’s new blood abound.
“The kids we’re talking about are physically talented,” running backs coach Ron Brown said. “But the mental toughness, the ability to learn quickly and to think quickly and to overthink out there, it’s huge to whether a guy plays early or not.”
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said the emotional maturity of the newcomers has most impressed the coaches.
"It has to do with your body," Papuchis said, "how you prepare for practice, how you handle yourself in the meeting rooms. Things can get hectic and chaotic. If you've ever watched us, [you know] I’m a screamer. Sometimes, coach Bo is a screamer. So they get a lot of feedback; let’s just put it that way."
The young players who can handle it get the first chance to play.
Don’t overlook that a few of these newcomers have pointed toward Saturday for months -- perhaps years. Banderas, the son of an ex-Husker out of Lincoln Southwest High School, committed early. He formed a bond with Gerry, from Sioux Falls, S.D., and another early pledge.
They attended games together last year, then showed up early in the summer and trained together.
“They were able to establish their relationships before the onslaught of practice,” linebackers coach Ross Els said. “It makes a difference.”
Banderas is bidding for time behind sophomore David Santos at middle linebacker. Gerry offers depth among a young group at the outside spots and as a defensive back in the nickel package.
Taylor and Newby provide something of a thunder-and-lightning combination to complement Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross. Taylor is a “fast dude with power, a brute,” Brown said, while Newby is “very fluid, graceful, athletic.”
Under Pelini, seven running backs have played as true freshmen. Cross and walk-on fullback Andy Janovich did it last year. So it’s more expected for Taylor and Newby. Regardless, Brown said, they’ve got to earn their way on the field.
The prospect of a deep freshman class excites fans and veteran players alike.
To play or not to play? In a new era, there’s a new answer.
“As long as they’re ready,” said senior receiver Quincy Enunwa, who played as a true freshman in 2010. “These guys put in the work. They have a want-to, a drive. If they have the skill, we want them on the field.”
13hJosh Moyer and Mitch Sherman