When one thinks of Michigan State's offense, powerhouse running back Le'Veon Bell typically comes to mind first.

The 6-foot-2, 240-pound junior averages 27.4 carries and 117.9 rushing yards per game.

The Spartans, however, are much more than Bell, Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said Tuesday.

"The thing that jumps out to me more than anything is the balance in terms of distribution of catches," he said.

Michigan State, which plays host to Nebraska on Saturday, has six receivers who have 21 or more catches, led by sophomore wideout Keith Mumphery with 32 for 412 yards.

Bell, though, is the focal point.

"He's a tough, physical, downhill runner," Papuchis said. "He runs well behind his pads. He's punishing. You obviously want to make him run east-west as much as you can. He's a good player."

* Burkhead update: Husker senior running back Rex Burkhead practiced neither Monday nor Tuesday, leaving his availability for Saturday's game in doubt.

Meanwhile, junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, who injured his left ankle late in the second quarter against Michigan, practiced Tuesday. He jogged off the field afterward with no apparent limp and with his ankles taped as usual.

* Blackshirt respect: Papuchis has a healthy respect for the Blackshirt tradition.

He also understands the tradition of great Nebraska defenses — which is why current Husker coaches want defenders to earn their black jerseys through excellent in-season play.

"Those defenses (of the past) were so good, we have to make sure we're holding ourselves to that kind of standard," Papuchis said. "If we just handed them out because you happen to be No. 1 on the depth chart, we feel like we're actually disrespecting the people who came before us."

Eleven Husker defenders were awarded Blackshirts in the wake of Saturday's win. Papuchis said the objective was to reward players "who have really defined their roles," as opposed to situational players and those in platoon roles. He said he hopes to award a couple more Blackshirts after this week's game.

Previous Nebraska coaching staffs awarded the jerseys before the season.

Papuchis understands some fans prefer the preseason method.

"The complaints are more from when I do speaking engagements," he said. "There's the one or two guys in the crowd who don't understand why we haven't handed them out yet. I don't think it's whole-scale. It's like anything else. The vocal minority gets most of the run. But I don’t think it's much of an issue."

* Baby steps: Ross Els, in charge of Husker special teams, saw improvements in that area against Michigan, particularly in punt coverage.

But he also saw enough to leave him dissatisfied.

"We didn't lose the game for us like we almost did against Northwestern. That was a loss special teamswise," he said. "We're trying to make strides. We were just very average in that (Michigan) game, which isn't good enough.

"Kick return was just OK. Kick coverage was just OK. Punt team was good. We pinned them deep. Brett (Maher) did a nice job. Punt return did nothing. But we didn't drop the ball twice. It really was a wash."

The Huskers did not give up a punt return of longer than 6 yards. Maher put a rugby-style punt to great use, averaging 42.2 yards per kick, including one punt that bounced off returnman Jeremy Gallon's hands and pinned Michigan at its 2.

How does Nebraska decide when to have Maher use such a style of punt?

"It just depends on what they're showing us," Els said. "If they give us the opportunity to do it, we'll do it. We want to keep teams guessing a little bit."

Steven M. Sipple and Brian Christopherson

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.