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Steven M. Sipple: Ex-Marine's offseason teachings buoy Huskers
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Steven M. Sipple: Ex-Marine's offseason teachings buoy Huskers

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During the impossibly long Nebraska football offseason, the hyperbole in the air (and in the newspaper) is nearly as thick as the July humidity.

Happens every year.

Perhaps you gloss over stories like the one about the leadership development training regimen -- led by a 40-year-old former U.S. Marine -- that challenged Husker players last winter to improve their physical and mental toughness.

The regimen was about defining and developing teamwork.

It was about establishing and maintaining high standards.

It was about teammates holding each other accountable.

"Before, it was a lot of lip service, but it kind of helped us change and helped start a transformation that kicked in all through the summer," says NU senior tight end Ben Cotton. "If someone wasn't doing something right, it wasn't a coach who was always correcting him; it was the guys to the left and right of him.

"It's your own teammates saying, 'That's not the way we do things around here.'"

The way Nebraska (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) is doing things this season captures the imagination. Three times, the Huskers overcame late-game deficits. Two of their wins were decided in the final moments on the road. They needed late stops and late scores. They held together and thrived, and we look for clues why as they prepare to play Penn State (6-3, 4-1).

Clues beyond the obvious.

Clues that take you back to last winter, when Eric Kapitulik, the decorated former Marine who as a platoon commander led 20 covert Special Forces missions, arrived in Lincoln to engage Husker players in two days of his specialized leadership training, called "The Program."

He pushed players to the limit. Players helped teammates who can't swim tread water. They hauled 50-pound sandbags and 14-foot logs.

They learned to feel comfortable in uncomfortable situations, says offensive coordinator Tim Beck.

They learned to lead the right way, says sophomore wide receiver Kenny Bell.

They saw weaknesses in their modus operandi and made changes, says senior linebacker Alonzo Whaley.

Maybe the intense training had nothing to do with Nebraska's resiliency this season.

Or maybe it's a critical factor.

I'm guessing the latter.

"It exposed the weaknesses in leadership and overall it allowed everyone to realize how to be a good teammate," Whaley says.

Forget the friendship part of being a teammate, he says. Being a good teammate means setting high standards and demanding excellence -- without worrying about hurting anybody's feelings.

"I definitely think it helped us become a better team, which allows you in those adverse situations to not get upset, not get discouraged and to have that confidence in your teammates that they can do this, that they can pull through.

"I think it definitely helped with the mind-set and attitude our team has now."

There is no doubt a combination of factors explains Nebraska's resiliency.

One factor is junior quarterback Taylor Martinez's demeanor. He brings calm to the huddle, Cotton says.

He also holds teammates accountable.

"Taylor used to be, when he was younger, a lot more quiet," Cotton says. "I think the program helped guys like him who don't normally speak out.

"If someone's not doing something right, he'll tell him to pick it up. If guys are doing a good job, he's congratulating them. I couldn't be more proud of him."

Says Beck: "Taylor's a fierce competitor. He has tremendous toughness. That's always been the case. He doesn't wear it on his sleeve like people might want him to do. But his team knows it and feeds off it. I think he's learned how, in his own way, to convey his competitiveness."

Kapitulik's training regimen challenges people to constantly strive to get that much better.

That much stronger.

That much tougher.

That much more resilient.

"It's a mind-set that you're never defeated until you're defeated," Whaley says. "In order to come beat us, you're going to have to play 60 minutes of football. If you don't, you get the outcome everybody else has been getting.

"We don't get too discouraged. We don't get shaken up as much as we used to when things go bad."

Nebraska apparently strayed from Kapitulik's teachings in its 63-38 loss Oct. 6 at Ohio State, when the Huskers unraveled in the second half. Players bickered on the field and pointed fingers, Whaley says.

Nebraska since has won three straight games.

Whaley says a key is players taking control as opposed to waiting for coaches to do so.

Cotton says a key "is shutting up and listening" if a teammate feels a need to speak up.

Safe to say "The Program" has had an impact. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini gave Kapitulik a game ball after the Oct. 27 win against Michigan.

"I think it's something that's going to stay in this program for a very, very long time," Cotton says.

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

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