Josh Banderas used one word to sum up what he was thinking during Nebraska’s football game last season against UCLA.
Banderas, a senior at Lincoln Southwest at the time, watched the Huskers’ 36-30 loss on television.
He remembers seeing (and cringing at) what everyone else across the state saw (and cringed at) that night: The Bruins getting their quick, skill-position players in open space, and Nebraska defenders, more often than not, unable to tackle them in one-on-one situations.
The result was 653 total yards by UCLA, roughly 300 of them coming after initial contact, according to Nebraska coaches’ film study.
UCLA most frequency attacked at linebacker, where Banderas, a Nebraska true freshman, has one career start (at the MIKE position).
“I’m ready for it,” Banderas said. “If they throw at me, I’ll be ready for it.”
No. 23 Nebraska, in fact, could have two true freshmen starting at linebacker Saturday, when No. 16 UCLA visits Lincoln. Nathan Gerry, like Banderas, started the Huskers’ last game, against Southern Miss.
Zaire Anderson, Michael Rose and David Santos rotated in, and Nebraska linebackers coach Ross Els said all five will play Saturday, with the starters to be determined.
“I don’t think we have a starting MIKE or a starting WILL, because nobody’s really jumped ahead and said, ‘I’m better than everybody else,’” Els said. “I don’t know who will start for sure.”
Anderson, competing with Gerry at the WILL position, said he anticipates having a “huge role” against UCLA. Santos, a sophomore, started at MIKE in Nebraska’s opener against Wyoming but played behind Banderas and Rose, a redshirt freshman, against Southern Miss.
“There’s such great competition going on,” Els said. “These guys know if they have a bad day, they may not play at all on Saturday.”
The starting spots go to players who prepare the best in practice, and last week, those players were Banderas and Gerry.
“I think these two kids will (continue to prepare) because of their background,” Els said. “They’re serious about football. They’re serious about school. They just want to be successful in everything they do. They’ve prepared in life and I think they’ll be fine preparing that way.”
UCLA and its array of gifted skill-position players are a bigger challenge, though, and nobody would be surprised if the Bruins tested Nebraska’s young linebackers, based on what happened last year in the Rose Bowl.
“They exposed us in some things scheme-wise that we’re not doing anymore,” Els said. “And then there were times we just got out-athleted.”
That last part is where Els feels Nebraska is improved. For example, Els has said he likes the coverage skills of Banderas, who had a pass deflection against Southern Miss.
Gerry, meanwhile, has eight tackles through two games — fourth-most on the team.
“We have some guys now who are making plays in the open field,” Els said. “We’re still missing a couple (tackles), but for the most part, I think we’ve got a shot of getting people there.
“Last year (against UCLA) was a problem, no question. Last year was a big issue. Now, (Johnathan Franklin) was their all-time career rushing leader, too. That dude was good.”
Franklin’s gone, but his replacement at running back, Jordon James, averaged 7.4 yards a carry, on 21 rushes, in UCLA’s opener against Nevada.
He also caught two passes, for 18 and 12 yards.
“It’s a lot harder,” Banderas said of tackling in open space. “And that comes with playing more games and getting more experience. You learn angles and what tackle needs to be made and when it needs to be made.”
And even then, it’s not always perfect.
“There’s just so much space. Would you rather play tag in a closet or in a gymnasium?” Els said.
“I think it’s harder to tackle because of the spread, because of the open field. I don’t think (tackling’s) taught less. I just think it’s harder.”
Banderas said he’s ready for any one-on-one challenges, but understands if anyone’s a tad concerned about seeing a couple of true freshman linebackers against one of the nation’s top offensive units.
“I’d be a little worried, (too),” he said, smiling. “If the coaches trust me — and I trust the coaches more than anybody — so if they trust me to be on the field, then I know I’m ready.”