John Papuchis long has maintained that folks outside the Nebraska football program have little idea what's really going on inside the walls of North Stadium. He's probably right.

So, how could they possibly understand what was going on inside Papuchis' walls -- inside his head, heart and soul -- throughout the offseason?

How could Nebraska fans possibly understand how he felt right after the Capital One Bowl, a 45-31 loss to Georgia in January?

Papuchis, following the final game of his first season as Husker defensive coordinator, felt "a little bit empty, to be honest with you."

When did the emptiness subside?

"Monday," Papuchis said.

He didn't mean the Monday following the bowl game. He meant this past Monday, when Nebraska began preseason drills, and he returned full-throttle to the practice field.

"Just being honest," he said.

We shouldn't be surprised. Think back to last season. To the 63-38 nightmare at Ohio State. Talk about a bad day at the office. Then, to most everyone's surprise (except perhaps head coach Bo Pelini), Nebraska reeled off a six-game winning streak. The Huskers prevailed in meat-grinder games at Northwestern and Michigan State. They beat Michigan and Penn State. They bucked debilitating cold at Iowa. The senior class burgeoned with pride, and rightfully so.

Then, the bitter end. Two rugged losses, one in particular. Try as they might, many Nebraska fans still can't shake images of the mind-boggling setback to Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. Pelini wants his team to move on. In that regard, it frustrates him that people dwell on last season's struggles. NU's six-game win streak became an afterthought. That's a shame. Papuchis ached for all the players, especially the seniors.

The 35-year-old Papuchis learned plenty last season. Yeah, it is Pelini's defense. Papuchis himself has said it's his job to teach Bo's system. Papuchis knows the system inside and out. Knows Bo inside and out. That's the easy part for Papuchis.

After one season as a coordinator, Papuchis better understands the scrutiny that comes with the job. You don't fully understand that part until you live it. Oh, he lived it, all right. One of the biggest adjustments, he said, was facing the music -- the media -- right after those dramatic defeats.

As a defensive line/special-teams coach, he generally could fly under the radar.

"Now, all of a sudden, you're out in front of everything," he said, referring to not only post-game media interviews, but also regular post-practice sessions with often a couple dozen reporters. "You just have to learn how to manage your time and expectations, and answer the hard questions. And also enjoy it when people are patting you on the back.

"You know, (former Husker defensive coordinator) Carl Pelini used to be the one that had to answer all the hard questions. Now, I have to answer them."

His first experience in that regard was a whopper. UCLA, in Nebraska's second game last year, rolled up 653 yards, averaging 6.9 yards per play. Husker defenders were on the chase most of the night. Papuchis looked shell-shocked afterward. His pride was hurt. You could see it. Worse, he hurt for his players.

"But you're also accountable to all the stakeholders in this program -- our fans," Papuchis said. "If I'm going to be the leader of the defense, I'm going to stand in front of the cameras when we do well, and I'm going to stand there when we don't do well. That's part of my job.

"Is it easy all of the time? No, it isn't. But that's part of being a leader. And that's part of the responsibility that goes with the job."

Ah, the stakeholders. Their passion resonates, through thick and thin and everywhere in between. But during this offseason, there has been enough skepticism about the defense to last two offseasons. Of course, much of the skepticism is warranted. Even so, dealing with that element -- the criticism that must feel a bit personal at times -- was a big part of adjusting to life as a coordinator, Papuchis said.

"I think we all go through stages of development in our lives," he said. "Criticism doesn't bother me now like it may have when I was a younger coach. I still have a lot to learn. But I think in terms of my ability to block out outside noise, it's much better than ever before."

Papuchis retains strong faith in Pelini's system. It's flexible, Papuchis said. The blueprint tends to change as personnel changes. You mold the blueprint around talent on hand, he said.

"I think this group, being as fast as it is, as athletic as we potentially could be, could be a group that you see move around a little bit more, in terms of how we stunt the front (four), how we use pressures. ... Time will tell on that."

Nebraska is counting on speed and athleticism to offset the lack of experience in the front seven and safety positions. Time will tell on that, too.

Papuchis likes the fact "outside expectations" aren't especially high for the defense. Make no mistake, he hears the naysayers. He embraces the underdog role. In that regard, Papuchis is exactly like his boss.

"We'll see who's right at the end of the day," Papuchis said. "I'm sure there are a lot of people who think it's all just coach-speak. When we line up on Aug. 31 (against Wyoming), we'll see."

For now, Papuchis can enjoy the day. Enjoy the next practice, next meeting, as mundane as that might seem to folks on the outside. Optimism has replaced emptiness. That's the beauty of a new season. The beauty of August.

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


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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