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Thursday, October 10, 2013
Rose, Huskers LBs starting to blossom

By Adam Rittenberg

No Big Ten team lost more at linebacker than Nebraska, which said goodbye to all three of its starters from the 2012 season.

Not surprisingly, no Big Ten linebacking corps went through the spring and summer with more uncertainty and excitement than the Huskers.

Michael Rose, Josh Ferguson
Led by Michael Rose, Nebraska returns a deep and and promising group of linebackers.
"In the preseason, we were trying to figure out how it was going to all work," Huskers freshman outside linebacker Michael Rose said.

It's taking some time for the pieces to come together. Nebraska has started seven different linebackers in the first five games, as both Rose and fellow redshirt freshman Jared Afalava made their first career starts last week against Illinois. Middle linebacker David Santos already has lost a starting job and regained it, and two true freshmen, Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry, have started three games, becoming the first Husker defenders to do so since Ciante Evans in 2011.

The tinkering likely will continue as Zaire Anderson recovers from his ankle injury. The group should print a T-shirt -- Nebraska LinebackORs -- as the depth chart for Saturday's game at Purdue shows co-starters at all three positions. Of the six players listed, five have either freshman or sophomore eligibility (Anderson is the lone junior).

But the youth and the moving parts could be good for Nebraska, which hasn't had an impact linebacker since Lavonte David in 2011. If the Illinois game is any indication, good days are ahead. Rose led the team with 11 tackles, including one for loss, while Afalava recorded two TFLs, including a sack. Santos chipped in with nine tackles and a quarterback hurry as Nebraska held Illinois out of the end zone for two and a half quarters and turned in its best defensive effort of the season.

"We've played a number of guys," Huskers coach Bo Pelini said. "We have some different options at the linebacker spot. You have youth at a position, you're going to go through some growing pains, but I like the future at that position. I think they're growing, I think they're learning every day, their attitude's been great."

Rose had a feeling he would start Friday and received confirmation Saturday before the game. Pelini praised the 5-foot-11, 230-pound Rose for a "clean" and "aggressive" performance.

"Everybody in the linebacker room, if they were asked to step up in that spot, they would have done pretty well," Rose told ESPN.com after Tuesday's practice. "I was just fortunate to get the call. It's all credit to preparation and keeping the same approach, regardless of what spot you're in and how many snaps you think you may get."

Without a veteran multiyear starter in the group, Nebraska's linebackers have taken it upon themselves to build chemistry and leadership skills. Monday nights, you'll find them gathered around a TV to watch the weekly NFL game. Thursday nights, you'll find them dining at Applebee's or another downtown Lincoln establishment.

The linebackers know they're the least experienced group on defense, but they also recognize their role in on-field leadership, whether it's verbal or performance-based.

"I always want to be a leader," Rose said. "I think I have natural leadership ability. I need to hone in on it better and be a little bit more vocal. We're all taking that role. David has done a great job stepping up, Zaire, everybody. People always want to ask, who is the leader? But sometimes organizations can't be just one person. Collectively, especially at linebacker, we’ve taken on that role."

Gratitude is a key tenet of leadership, and Rose certainly has it. In May, he joined several teammates in traveling to Durban, South Africa, to work in an orphanage where many children had AIDS or had lost their parents to the disease.

Rose helped raise money throughout his freshman year to make the trip, his first outside of the United States.

"Some had AIDS/HIV, some had been raped or neglected," he said. "Some of the craziest stories I've ever heard. You've got 10-, 11-year-old kids taking care of their two or three siblings in a shack. One of the workers, we went back to his home village, and his whole house was about the size of my room up here in Lincoln. It was eye-opening. It made me more appreciative. It made me want to go back out there and do things like that.

"I'm very grateful for the opportunity I've got here. I thank God for it every day."

Rose is confident in his ability, but he knows he could have made more plays against Illinois and will need to be sharper against Purdue, whether he plays 60 snaps or 16. Eye discipline is a focal point for the freshman, who first has to read his keys from the opposing offense and then believe in them to play fast.

Pelini notes that the mistakes that the linebackers are making are "young mistakes," and will be cleaned up in due time, ideally before Nebraska's November gauntlet.

"We have a lot of goals ahead of us as a defense, and the linebackers, we're the backbone of all those goals," Rose said. "We've just got to keep going."