CHICAGO - From the moment Nebraska officially announced it was joining the Big Ten Conference, the Huskers have known they'll be wearing a big red target on their backs all season long.
With several regional and national media outlets already predicting NU to come in win the league title in their first year, Nebraska's players are well aware that the rest of the teams in the Big Ten probably didn't take too kindly to all the Huskers' preseason praise.
Knowing that every conference game will be one of the biggest games of the year for each of their respective opponents, the Huskers say they have to be more focused than ever if they are to live up those lofty expectations.
"I think all that just probably put a bull's eye on our backs, but it's just a matter of playing football," senior linebacker Lavonte David said during Day 2 of Big Ten Media Days on Friday. "Once you get out there and just play football, the better team is going to win regardless. I just assume not get caught up in all that, because everybody's going to have their predictions. We just have to take care of ourselves."
Part of keeping a level head as a team has been the strong influence of Nebraska's team leaders. One of those leaders has been junior running back Rex Burkhead, who said he's made it a priority to step up and make sure the Huskers learn and grow from last season's disappointing finish.
"Just having a few years under my belt now, I've seen what teams have gone through and kind of where you can learn from your mistakes and learn from the past and how you can improve on those things," Burkhead said. "I think our team, especially our leaders, we've seen that, and we're doing our best to learn from it and get better."
Head coach Bo Pelini has insisted time and time again that no one game is bigger than any other on the schedule, and that philosophy arguably won't hold more true than it will for Nebraska this season.
In fact, the players have embraced that way of thinking more than ever over the course of the off-season.
"You have to do that," senior defensive tackle Jared Crick said. "If you take a game off or overlook a game, you're not going to play how you want to play because you're so focused on the week ahead. That may have gotten to us a couple times last year. We just have to stay focused on the process like (Pelini) says. That's our motto, and we just have to stick to it."
As calm and collected as the Huskers sound in taking on that approach, it's not as if the players don't feel like they have something to prove to their new conference just as much as their opponents.
"I think you get that at the beginning of every season," Crick said. "You want to show not only other people, but yourself how far you've progressed over the summer and the spring. Definitely being in a different conference, I think these schools are seeing what we did in the Big 12, and they like to think 'Yeah, well you're not in the Big Ten yet.' So we've got to go in and prove that we can hang. We can win this conference as long as we play our brand of football and execute."
David not getting caught up in the hype
The attention David has received since the beginning of last season has grown to the point where he's become one of the highest profile linebackers in college football coming into the fall.
After his breakout performance last year, David had become a fixture on preseason award watch lists. So far, he's been named a candidate for the Butkus, Bednarik, Lombardi and Nagurski awards, and he was one of two defensive players (along with Crick) to be named one of the Big Ten's Players to Watch on Thursday.
Despite all the praise and hype that's surrounded him the past few months, David said he hasn't let it affect his focus or change his goals coming into his final collegiate season.
"I just think about where I came from," David said. "Just think about what got me here. God put me in this place for a reason, so I just think about that and try and stay level headed and try to stay humble. Humbleness takes you a long way, staying positive gets you a long way, so I just try and stay that way and try to be successful."
Having bulked up to 225 pounds, David said he was more excited about the overall talent on Nebraska's defense than he was winning any individual honors. Though the Huskers' linebacker position has been a point of concern for some fans, David said the unit is much deeper and talented than a year ago.
"Our depth is great," he said. "Everybody is working and everybody is competing. Everybody is trying to fight to play a role on the field."
Burkhead: Jamal Turner is 'a gamer.'
Freshman receiver Jamal Turner definitely got his share of hype after his stellar debut in the Spring Game, and Burkhead said Turner deserved every bit of it.
After working with the Arlington, Texas, native all spring and through the summer, Burkhead said he has little doubt Turner will be a huge weapon for Nebraska's offense for years to come.
"You saw in the Spring Game that he's a very explosive player," Burkhead said. "What I love about the kid is he's very competitive and loves the game of football. He comes to practice every day full of energy and he's ready to compete."
Does Burkhead expect Turner to come in and contribute right away as a true freshman despite playing receiver for just a few weeks of spring practice?
"Absolutely," Burkhead said. "Absolutely, because he's not intimidated at all of the older guys or anyone else. He's a player. He's a gamer."
***Pelini's sideline demeanor, specifically during last year's loss at Texas A&M, was a hot topic during the Day 2 session at Media Days. Asked his thoughts on Pelini's style as a coach, Crick backed Pelini 100 percent.
"I don't want him to change a bit," Crick said. "People might see Coach Bo on the outside, but they don't really know who Coach Bo is. Coach Bo is not that guy, and if he's yelling at you, he's doing it for a good reason. To tell you the truth, Coach Bo doesn't even do the brunt of the yelling. It's the other guys on the team who do more of the yelling than Coach Bo.
"He's only yelling at you for your own good. It's not because you made him look bad, it's because you made the team look bad and you're hurting the team and yourself. He just wants the team to succeed and you to be the best football player you can be."
***David said senior offensive tackle Jermarcus Hardrick has made the biggest gains of any Husker this summer in terms of strength and conditioning. Hardrick is now down to 320 pounds after weighing as much as 335 last season.
"Jermarcus Hardrick has really made some big strides since last season," David said. "He lost a lot of weight and he's running faster now and getting more conditioned."
***Burkhead added a few more names to the list of players who have had great off-seasons. He said receivers Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Turner really stepped up over the summer, and all of them should make some noise in fall camp.
"Those guys are going to make plays, and I think they're going to be big factors for us," Burkhead said.
Somewhat surprisingly, he also mentioned sophomore offensive lineman Spencer Long as another player who has taken some big strides over the summer.
***Pelini said Friday that he has no immediate plans to redshirt any of his three highly touted freshmen running backs this season. Burkhead can see why, as he said he's been very impressed with Aaron Green, Braylon Heard and Ameer Abdullah this summer in player workouts.
"They're very talented," Burkhead said. "They all bring something different to the table. They're quick, they're fast, they're very disciplined and they're great kids. They all love to play football and they all love being around each other. They're only going to make each other better."
***Everyone at Big Ten media days was obviously focused on asking Nebraska about playing their new league opponents, but many seem to forget there's only one team on the schedule on which the Huskers will be seeking some revenge - Washington.
"That Holiday Bowl game kind of put a bad taste in our mouth," Burkhead said. "It was a bitter feeling after that game. It's a 1-1 series now, and we're playing best of three. I'm definitely looking forward to that game."
***Crick was asked about going up to Madison for Nebraska's Big Ten opener against Wisconsin and what he expected the atmosphere to be like. Crick said he knows it's going to be rowdy, but it likely won't be as hostile as some of Big 12 stadiums.
"I know we're not going to be liked, but I know we're also not going to get stuff thrown at us either," Crick said. "It's going to be crazy, and that's what we want. We want them to be at their rowdiest."
***As excited as everyone was about the move to the Big Ten, Crick said there were some things he was going to miss about the Big 12.
"Definitely the trips to Texas and to the warm weather, and definitely the guys you've been playing against for the last three, four years now and rivalry with Oklahoma," he said. "You're going to miss all that, but you have to realize we're moving on to bigger and better things and lots of new experiences in life. You just have to enjoy it as it comes."
***Now that Nebraska is a member of the Big Ten, it means the Huskers have a much greater chance to play a bowl game in the state of Florida. As a Miami native, David was certainly happy about the chance to go back home, but said he would much rather be playing in Pasadena or New Orleans at season's end.
"Another teammate who is also from Florida came up to me and told me about that," David said. "It's great, but we're not trying to focus on those games right now. We're trying to get to the big game."
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