CHICAGO — Mohamed Barry listens to all the lofty preseason projections for the Nebraska football team and literally rolls his eyes.
I actually saw him do it Thursday. He rolled his eyes. It was beautiful.
The Nebraska senior inside linebacker wants desperately to prove the prognosticators right. He hungers for the Huskers to win the Big Ten West Division and get a crack at the East champion in December in Indianapolis. But he isn’t about to make a lot of puffed-chest predictions. It’s not his style. And it would be ridiculous for him to do so considering the Huskers’ issues on defense the past couple seasons.
Along those lines, Barry was asked during Big Ten Media Days exactly what he considers job No. 1 for the Nebraska defense in 2019.
“Stop the run,” he said flatly. “This is a man’s game when you talk about the run game in the Big Ten.”
Bravo. Preach on. Barry gets it. If every player understood the big picture as well as Barry does, this bizarre world would be a better place. I appreciate Barry so much that I almost didn’t want to ask him about a statistic that a writer who covers Wisconsin tweeted Thursday morning.
The stat was startling in an unflattering way to Nebraska’s defense. In the last two games against the Huskers, Wisconsin standout running back Jonathan Taylor has rushed 49 times for 470 yards and five touchdowns. That’s an unsightly 9.6 yards per carry. Yikes. By comparison, he averaged 6.5 ypc and 142.3 yards against other Big Ten teams.
An average of 6.5 is hard enough to swallow.
But 9.6 … my heavens.
I asked Barry about it, and he handled the situation well.
“I don’t care what he did in the past,” Barry said. “The past is the past. As a player, I’m certain he’s not thinking about the past. He’s thinking about the future and what he’s going to do this year. And that’s what we’re thinking about, what we’re going to do to him or any running back we face. That’s all that matters, is what happens this year. Watch. Come game days, y’all will see.”
If folks are skeptical, Barry would understand. Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said last October that "we have a long ways to go football-wise and a long ways to go strength and conditioning-wise if we're going to catch up and be able to beat teams like Wisconsin and Michigan."
That actually was before Wisconsin and Ohio State bullied Nebraska with ground games. Then, to cap off the season, Iowa, often lining up in a power-I, rushed 45 times for 266 yards, or 5.9 per carry. Kirk Ferentz’s crew entered that game ranked only 88th nationally in rushing, but on a gray day in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes too often looked like the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Barry insists the gap to which Chinander referred is closing.
“Of course,” he said. “If you look at who we have up front, it starts in the trenches. You look at who we have coming back and then the addition of Darrion Daniels and Will Honas coming back for us (and) Alex Davis turning into a complete monster this spring, I think we’re ready. But it’s for us to prove that.”
He believes the proof will be there. But is Nebraska really ready to hold up against power-run teams? Skeptics point to the Huskers’ shortage of depth at inside linebacker. Yes, Barry and his team-leading 112 tackles offer hope. But there are only two other scholarship veterans — juniors Will Honas and Collin Miller. Honas is coming back from a major knee injury, and Miller just began playing the position last August.
Would Chinander really want to turn to an incoming freshman, Jackson Hannah, against the likes of Ohio State and Wisconsin?
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My guess is Paul Chryst would run right at a freshman until that rookie proves he can stop Taylor. Same goes for other Big Ten coaches with brutish ground attacks.
This much is certain: Barry will do whatever it takes to help the cause. He’s passionate about playing for Nebraska in part because NU gave him a chance when other schools didn’t. So much of what he is as a man, he says, is because of what he’s learned at the school.
He’s passionate about his teammates and the Blackshirt tradition. This past spring, he mentioned that it bothers him that the spotlight has been off the Nebraska defense. That’s what happens when in back-to-back seasons the Huskers rank 100th and 94th, respectively, in average yards allowed.
That’s what happens when any defense allows 200 rushing yards a game, as has been the case for the last two seasons. Fans look for more pleasant things to talk about.
Barry, though, doesn’t dodge the discussion about the glaring need for improvement on his side of the ball.
He tackles the discussion much like he attacks a ball carrier.
He was poised and ready on this day for all questions, even the toughies.
I don’t know if he’ll be a team captain — I wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes the case — but I know he’ll be a leader on this team.
“This program is made off the name Blackshirts,” Barry said. “You talk about Grant Wistrom, you talk about Jason Peter, you talk about Ndamukong Suh or Lavonte David or coach Barrett Ruud. You talk about those men and what they did when they were here. It will always be about defense here, first and foremost.”
You can debate that point. But let’s wait for another day because Barry was on a roll.
“I love that our offense is so great and will continue to be,” he said. “But we will be a well-rounded team. Don’t think it’s just an offensive school. I would never want anyone to think that because this is a Blackshirt school, this is a Blackshirt team.
“Whoever represents that legacy on the field had better be ready to represent.”
Preach on, brother Mo.
“We underachieved the last several years, and everyone knows it,” he said. “This is Nebraska. The fan base is used to winning championships. I know it’s a drought right now. But we’re ready to turn it all the way around. And not in talk, in action. And in how we play week in and week out and in the substance we deliver to these fans.
“We want to be in Indianapolis come December. We want to win that game. I believe in my teammates, I believe in my coaches. That’s why I’m so confident that that’s the path we’re on.”
It’s talking season, Husker fans, so go ahead and dream.
Barry makes it feel like it can happen.