You hear it often: As true freshmen go through a college athletic season, they're bound to hit the proverbial wall.

Josh Banderas can relate.

A 6-foot-2, 225-pound Nebraska middle linebacker, the affable and upbeat Banderas says there's essentially a couple of ways he can respond: climb the wall or get KO'd by it.

"I'm in the process of climbing it," he said last week as Nebraska (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) pushed through its second bye week of the season. "The bye weeks definitely have helped. Just the length of our meetings and having a chance to talk one-on-one with the coaches, it's been nice."

Watching college football players perform as true freshmen is sometimes like watching a child learn to ride a bike without training wheels. It's rare to see a kid hop on the bike and ride away like Greg LeMond. There generally are fits and starts. Maybe a smooth takeoff followed by a few wobbles, more smooth sailing, then a collision with a tree, or wall.

Banderas enjoyed a generally smooth start at Nebraska. The Lincoln Southwest graduate earned immediate playing time, starting NU's second, third and fourth games. However, he since has relinquished the starting job to sophomore David Santos, who responded with a combined 14 tackles in the past two games.

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini praised Santos for the manner in which he took charge of the defense in the last game, a 44-7 triumph at Purdue.

Ross Els, the Huskers' linebacker coach, said the Santos-Banderas competition likely will remain close all season.

Banderas' midseason assessment of himself?

"I don't think I could've done any better than what I've done," he said. "I came in and wanted to play special teams and hoped to get in games (at middle linebacker) in blowouts. I ended up starting for a few games."

Let's be frank: Considering the challenging nature of the position, it's a heck of a lot to ask of almost any true freshman to start at middle linebacker. The great Barrett Ruud, Nebraska's career tackles leader, played in every game as a true freshman in 2001, but never started (he was behind steady Jamie Burrow).

The middle linebacker essentially is the quarterback of the defense. And Banderas happens to play for an exacting head coach who specializes in defense.

The mental game has been a significant adjustment for him, Banderas acknowledged. It's not a matter of merely memorizing Pelini's defense. In fact, Pelini preaches against memorization, instead emphasizing the importance of understanding concepts. "Why" is a critical word in Pelini's football vocabulary; he wants players to understand why they're asked to do what they do.

He wants them to understand the big picture.

"At first, I thought it was Chinese," Banderas said of Pelini's system. "I thought, 'There's no way anybody can learn this.' But the more and more you actually do what you're supposed to do, the more confidence you get.

"We always talk about eyes. Once you really get into it, you only have two or three things you know you have to look at every down."

Banderas, the only in-state player in Nebraska's 2013 scholarship class, racked up 246 tackles during his junior and senior seasons at Southwest. He was ranked by the major recruiting websites among the nation's top 20 linebackers. Oregon was among schools that offered a scholarship.

In high school, Banderas didn't have to think much before a given play. He didn't worry much about technique. It was basically, "See ball, get ball."

"Now, you've got to know your man, and your gap, and what everybody else is doing every play," he said.

He clearly isn't intimidated. Not by opposing veteran players. Not by the relative enormity of his task. He seems to have just the right amount of confidence.

His father obviously helps matters. Tom Banderas was a three-year letterman as a Husker tight end (1985-87). He played on the freshman team in 1983, redshirted in 1984, and started his final three years on teams that were ranked in the top five. Josh and Tom talk daily.

In that regard, Josh Banderas maybe has an edge on other young Huskers. He insists NU's freshman defenders -- a combined 10 redshirt freshmen and true freshmen see action -- are a tough-minded group.

"I don't know if it's the mentality we have, or if it's just the way we've been brought up," Banderas said. "We always have the thought in our minds that we fully expect to be thrown in with the older guys.

"We're all men. We're all 18 to 23 years old. Physically, we're the same, except for weight-room work, obviously. But there's no reason we can't compete with the older guys."

There actually are things that work against rookies. Like the proverbial wall. But Banderas doesn't think about those things. He thinks about helping the team any way he can. So far, so good.

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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