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Illinois vs. Nebraska, 10.5.13

Even with a tug on his jersey, Nebraska defensive end Jason Ankrah (9) is able to tackle Illinois running back Donovonn Young (5) in third-quarter action at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013.

Puzzle pieces are scattered on a table.

It can take time to find what goes where, to connect enough pieces that you start to see the picture.

It can take time, but it can’t take too much time. Football coaches know that.

Because, before you realize, it’s the last Saturday in October and you’re headed to Minnesota to begin the second half of the season.

Are enough pieces in place?

When it comes to Nebraska’s defensive front seven — the biggest question mark heading into this season — coaches believe and hope the picture is forming.

“Every week, man, we’re still growing,” said defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski.

Some weeks more than others.

Of late, the growth spurts seem to be coming in greater increments.

“I think guys are starting to learn how to watch tape, how to study film, how to study the opponent and how to study themselves,” Kaczenski said. “I could tell early in the season who was putting the time in, who wasn’t. … I think now these guys are doing a better job.”

He feels good about his four defensive ends, led by Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory and Avery Moss, and including backup Greg McMullen.

And there is a list of five defensive tackles — Thad Randle, Aaron Curry, Vincent Valentine, Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice — who must hold firm down the stretch.

The sophomore Curry, in particular, has emerged as a critical piece when it comes to the big picture, taking over the starting spot on Nebraska’s interior defensive line next to the senior Randle.

You want growth? Early this year, Curry had so much anxiety Kaczenski said he’d “overexert himself before he even got on the field.”

Curry was too nervous, jittery.

“I think sometimes that got to him, kind of hindered his progress a little bit, where now he’s just playing. Don’t make the game more complicated than it is,” Kaczenski said. “You have your assignments and gap responsibilities, but ultimately you line up across the guy you’re supposed to get lined up across and just beat him up.”

The redshirt freshman Moss was another player who the coach thought sometimes worked himself up too much before games.

It’s a process, Kaczenski said, of going from a player just running out of the tunnel to one being counted on.

Moss had to learn how to manage his energy.

“All of a sudden, he’s at the hotel on a Friday night realizing he’s going to start the next day,” Kaczenski said. “There’s … I wouldn’t say pressure. Pressure is finding a job, feeding your kids. But there’s a little bit more added responsibility where, ‘OK, man, this is it.’”

Moss has settled into the role. The game has slowed down for him.

He’s second on the team in tackles for loss, with six, two behind Gregory.

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When you talk about puzzle pieces on defense, not many have been bigger than Moss and Gregory.

At linebacker, the pieces are still being moved around the table.

Ross Els said there isn’t clarity between the 1s and 2s among the linebackers. The biggest separation is at MIKE linebacker, with David Santos pulling ahead of true freshman Josh Banderas.

But it’s basically an even battle at the WILL spot, with Zaire Anderson and Michael Rose, and about as tight at the BUCK position, with Jared Afalava and Nathan Gerry.

Anderson and Afalava are expected to join Santos as starters Saturday, but that could change at any time, Els said.

That's six guys seeing important snaps at three spots.

Is Els worried three linebackers haven't separated themselves at this point of the season?

“Oh, I think it’s a concern,” he said. “You’d like to have some guys that you know should be playing every single snap and shouldn’t come out of the ballgame. We’re not at that point yet. But the good thing is, there’s depth. I’d be really concerned if the six guys couldn’t play.

“The good thing is, all six can play. We’ve just got to find who’s playing best at that time.”

Despite the heavy competition, Els said it’s a tight-knit group.

All have felt the exhilaration of starting. All also have been demoted.

What Els likes is that each player has handled it the right way. No none more so than Santos, who began the season with a Blackshirt. He started the first game, struggled, then found himself the equivalent of third-string a week later.

But Santos rallied, getting called off the bench and back into a lead role against South Dakota State. He’s been the starter since.

“His preparation mentally wasn’t as good as what it needed to be, and he was making mental mistakes that he shouldn’t be making, so we put in the freshman (Josh Banderas),” Els said. “I think that really woke him up, to ‘Hey, I’ve got to spend more time with this because I’m not exactly sure; I thought I was. I did it in practice, but when it happened in the game a little different, I really kind of delayed my response.'”

Better prepared now, Santos has been more in command, communicating quicker.

Now, he’s as big a piece of the defense as any — the Blackshirts' quarterback.

It’s a defense that has growing confidence after shutting down Purdue, allowing just seven points and 216 yards.

A defense that was ranked 107th heading into Big Ten play is now 72nd. Nothing to crow about, but better, and improving.

Yet as good as the Huskers played last time out, there were flaws easy to point out to players, Kaczenski said.

“It was a lopsided score, but they had us a few times," he said. "We tell guys every week, ‘People are going to watch this tape and we opened the door for our next opponents.’”

So the work continues to clean up the messes, to keep piecing the puzzle together.

Because, when November arrives, the picture has to be clear.

Reach Brian Christopherson at bchristopherson@journalstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.

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