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Freedom Akinmoladun, one of the last Huskers off the practice field Monday, was impossible to miss due to his attire.

"It feels pretty good right now," said the redshirt freshman defensive end. "I like the color."

He was speaking of his practice jersey — a black one. After piling up a team-high four sacks and six tackles for loss in nonconference play, Akinmoladun was rewarded with a Blackshirt on Monday.

"They're not selling them in the bookstore," said defensive line coach Hank Hughes. "They got to earn them out here."

Akinmoladun, who has started the last three games in place of the injured Jack Gangwish, said teammates applauded when he received it. "This is only a sign that I have to get better, because I now represent something bigger."

Defensive coordinator Mark Banker said Akinmoladun played "damn near the whole game" Saturday, closing down a 36-28 win against Southern Miss with a sack in the final seconds.

"This is a guy that came in as a tight end," Banker said. "Didn't have any idea of what he could and couldn't do. He's worked hard throughout spring, summer. He comes in many times with Coach Hughes. Asks all the important questions. He just wants to be as good as he can possibly be."

* DAVIS AN OPTION?: Carlos Davis made the trip to Miami and has worked with the top defensive units the past two weeks.

Husker coaches haven't shut the door on playing the true freshman this year, but Banker said any decision about pulling his redshirt wouldn't be made lightly.

"If he's absolutely better than someone else ... that's been practicing, then by all means we'll use him. But we want to be smart about it and not just waste a redshirt year on a series or two, or a game or two."

The Huskers are hurting some on that D-line, with Vincent Valentine trying to come back from a high-ankle sprain and Kevin Williams dealing with a sprained thumb.

Gangwish could possibly play this week. When he does return, it could allow NU coaches some creative options.

"We've had discussions. (Greg McMullen), because of his size and physical nature, he could play at end, and he could play at tackle," Banker said. "So you could see a lineup at some point ... with Maliek (Collins) and Greg at the tackles and Gangwish and Freedom out at the ends. That could be one rotation."

* STEPPING IN: With NU hurting on the D-line, Kevin Maurice and Mick Stoltenberg both were called on for some big snaps Saturday.

The junior Maurice said he maybe played more than any game in his career. "There shouldn't be any drop-off when you come in for somebody. They expect you to execute the same."

Stoltenberg, a redshirt freshman, played nine snaps. He pushed into the pocket well, said Hughes. "He gave us something. I should have put him in the game earlier."

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* NEWBY STILL AT THE TOP: In Mike Riley's eyes, there's still a gap between Terrell Newby and the other running backs.

"I think that Terrell Newby is our most versatile back, and he has made guys miss, he has been effective in the passing game," the Husker head coach said at Monday's news conference. "Disappointment for me so far is that we have not really got our screen game going like we'd like to do with our tailback, or any other parts really. Really, our screen game has been average. But he has the most versatility of our backs right now."

The junior has 70 rushes for 399 yards. The other running backs have a total of 27 carries between them, with Imani Cross rushing 16 times, Mikale Wilbon nine and Devine Ozigbo two.

Riley said he thinks Cross "plays a nice curveball role for us," and also would like to use the true freshman Ozigbo a little more.

"And Wilbon, I think as he grows in knowledge and we keep working with him, he can be like Terrell Newby," Riley added. "He's a pretty versatile guy. He's got learning to do like all younger guys do. Some of the parts of the game for running back, and there's no real statistic to it that people look at, but is real important to us, is how they do pass protecting.

"There are guys I've coached that can play as a true freshman because they have a very good sense of football. And their football IQ is very good. And pass protection, they can just see it. It's like the game is slower for them. Some guys don't come along quite that fast. And that becomes hard to play them, because they're so one-dimensional. It's nice to give them the ball, but if then you don't want to, and you'd like to throw or play-action pass and they have a protection responsibility, they become a liability."

* FAILING TO CLOSE THE DEAL: Perhaps most disappointing about Saturday's close call is Nebraska had its chances to bury Southern Miss right off the bat, but didn't.

"We actually opened the game with six scoring drives. The problem was five of those were field goals," Riley said. "But six scoring drives and six stops defensively. That's how the game started."

Then the third quarter began with Tommy Armstrong throwing a pick and Southern Miss scoring a touchdown to cut it to 22-7 despite the fact NU had been in control. Then the Huskers had a drive that ended with a missed field goal. Then a drive where Cross fumbled on the first play. "So that led to all the theatrics for really the rest of the game," Riley said.

The coach did feel while his offense didn't get enough points out of its 610 yards, "we had many less missed assignments than we had the week before."

On defense, he liked that NU held Southern Miss to 4-of-14 on third down, "but we're just giving up too much on first down and second down. That's not very good."

And as for having 12 penalties for the third time in four games, he said: "There's nothing we can do but correct it time and time again in practice. Some of them are bad choices. We get what we think is a nice interception (in the fourth quarter). We get called for pass interference on it, then we get called for unsportsmanlike conduct. That's all ridiculous. I don't have any other explanation except we just can't do that and it's got to change."

* JANO LOVE: Fullback Andy Janovich showed what he can do with a football in his hands Saturday, when he piled up 121 yards on six touches.

But Janovich's versatility is what impresses Riley. The coach believes the senior is an NFL-caliber player.

"I think with Andy, you have to continue to look at things to do with him because he's a good player. ... I told a pro scout today to just watch the Miami film on all the special teams ... and you will see a real football player."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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