CHICAGO — About 20 reporters circled around Bo Pelini as he stood behind a roundtable delivering the nuts and bolts about his football team.
It didn’t escape notice that this was about a third of the crowd that had surrounded Penn State coach Bill O’Brien earlier in the day.
Sometimes, and this was one of those times, less is more.
Sometimes it is a fine thing to not be the main attraction.
Nebraska’s head football coach was most definitely not that Thursday on the first of these two sessions at Big Ten Media Days.
And that seemed just fine with Pelini, who could care less that a recent media poll had pegged his team third in the Legends Division — “It doesn’t matter to me whether they pick us first or last” — or that it was mostly just the local scribes following him and his players around closely.
As he was in the spring, Pelini seemed content, confident.
And why exactly is that?
“Our players, they took upon themselves to teach each other and do some things on our own that I think have really progressed our football team,” Pelini said. “Putting in the extra time in times when they weren’t required to, weren’t asked to do so. … And that shows great leadership, tremendous commitment from them …. so it makes me excited as a head coach to be part of a group that’s so hungry.”
He likes his quarterback, too. Some others out there may doubt Taylor Martinez, but the head coach believes the junior quarterback's best days are ahead.
"He's had a tremendous offseason,” Pelini said. "But it’s got to carry over,” he added.
Pelini seems willing to put in a good number of chips that it will.
“From my experience, usually when a guy’s that committed and puts that kind of work in, usually you reap the benefits.”
Yet as much as people dwell on Martinez, it’s Pelini’s bread and butter — the defense — that could be the biggest decider in whether Nebraska can climb a rung up the college football ladder.
The Huskers ranked 37th in total defense — respectable enough in some circles, but not when put against some of Pelini’s top 10 defenses of the past.
Inconsistencies crept up consistently.
But Pelini is confident improvement will be had, and one name he cited Thursday that could play a significant part in making that true is senior safety Daimion Stafford.
While Stafford’s high ceiling was recognizable last year, so were his rookie mistakes, as he was in his first year in the defense after transferring from the juco ranks.
Now, can Stafford harness all that potential and take a big leap in his second and final season at Nebraska?
“He’s really matured,” Pelini said. "He’s a physically talented guy. Everyone’s seen that. But mentally, he’s in a different place than he was a year ago. And he’s … a lot more ready to go through a football season and play winning football, there’s no question about that. I’m excited about Daimion. He’s taken a leadership role. He’s embraced the leadership role.”
Other noteworthy topics Pelini hit on:
*** While Stafford is emerging as a key voice on the defense, Pelini said senior linebacker Will Compton is "probably our undisputed leader" on defense. "He's a guy that really, I thought, last year started taking his game to another level."
*** Braylon Heard is moving to running back to help offset the transfer of Aaron Green. But Pelini said the sophomore will also continue to work some on defense “in specialized roles.”
"Right now we're planning on using him a little on the defensive side of the football, but obviously we don't want to spread him too thin," Pelini said. "If he's getting overworked, then the place where we limit him would be on the defensive side."
*** Speaking of Aaron Green, Pelini was asked about the running back’s decision to transfer after spring ball. Green ended up at TCU.
"He fully knew where he stood and what the options were and he decided it was his best place to play somewhere else," Pelini said. “Have at it. I want guys that want to be here and are here for the right reasons. I don't want guarantees. You got to earn your way in our program. And if you don't like your situation and you believe it's going to be better somewhere else rather than make your situation better where you are, then you probably belong in a different program.
"I wish Aaron luck. He's a tremendous young man. I really like him. But as it turned out, it was probably better off that he went somewhere else."
*** Pelini believes the fact Nebraska is now more familiar with the teams in the conference after Year 1 could pay some dividends.
If nothing else, it makes preparation easier compared to a season ago when 11 of the 12 teams on NU’s regular-season schedule were different from the year before.
“You know, there’s one thing seeing it on film, there’s another thing living it and seeing it in person,” Pelini said of last year's experiences.
Among other things, Pelini said his staff and players came away from their first year in the Big Ten impressed with the depth of the league.
“And you know that I think our players came out of it knowing that we’re going to be challenged week in and week out,” he said. “You’ve got to be ready to go each and every Saturday or things aren’t going to go your way.”