Grant Wistrom figured the shift would occur now that Scott Frost is in charge.
Black is a bit more in vogue these days in the Nebraska football realm. Frost has turned up the volume on the Blackshirt discussion, and the timing is right.
"I feel like when Mike Riley was there (from 2015-17), it was almost an afterthought," says Wistrom, who won the Lombardi Award in 1997 as a linchpin defender for a ferocious Husker defense. "With Riley, it was all about offense and who they were recruiting. As far as defense and the Blackshirts, it felt like, 'Oh, yeah, we have this tradition here, too, let's not forget it.'
"Scott is the complete opposite of that mindset. He treats the tradition as a cornerstone of the program, cornerstone of its identity. He's bringing it back to the forefront."
You can see it in Nebraska's 2019 alternate uniforms, highlighted by a black jersey and black "N" on the helmet. No game has been specified for the uniforms, but it would be cool to see a slew of former Blackshirts in the stadium whenever it happens.
In future years, Frost says, he envisions a scenario where if the defense has a great game and holds an opponent under so many points that it would earn the right to wear Blackshirts the next week. Nothing like that has been done around here that I can remember.
"I think it would be another source of pride for our defense," Frost says.
Frost keeps making good moves as the program's leader, and heightened emphasis on the Blackshirt tradition is among his better ones. To wit: Before last season, Wistrom and Jason Peter spoke to the Husker defense. This week, several former Blackshirts came to practice to present the coveted black practice jerseys to 14 recipients on this year's unit.
It'll always make sense to honor a tradition unique to the Nebraska program. But it's especially apt at the moment. If the Huskers are going to improve dramatically on last season's 4-8 record, as many pundits and fans anticipate, the defense will have to be much better. Much better against the run. Much better on third down. Much better harassing quarterbacks. Better at forcing turnovers. You get the idea.
At least one Blackshirt legend will be watching closely.
"I want to see defenders have excitement for each other," Wistrom says. "When a guy makes a play, are there 10 other guys running up to congratulate him? If a guy makes a sack, is he looking to run away from the team to celebrate or is he looking to celebrate with his teammates? You mostly just want to see hustle. Eleven hats to the ball on every snap."
As Nebraska attempts to rise under Frost's leadership, one can bank on his revved-up spread offense being effective, if not elite. When the offense is really clicking, it scores fast and often. If it's sputtering, series can end in a heartbeat. And that can put stress on the defense. NU defensive coordinator Erik Chinander admitted last year he'd like to slow things down a bit sometimes, but said it's Frost show.
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That comment always sticks in the back of my mind. It sort of concerned me initially. Not so much anymore. Yes, Frost is proud of his offense. It's his baby. It largely defines his program's identity, especially as long as superstar quarterbacks are on campus. But Frost has shifted the overall conversation. That's right, he's added a tinge of black. More than a tinge, actually.
When former Nebraska linebacker Jay Foreman, a three-year starter from 1995-98, told this year's Blackshirts that he included in his will that he be buried with a black jersey, well, I'm guessing it made an impact.
"That Blackshirt gave me confidence to do things I never, ever dreamed of doing both on the field and off the field," Foreman says. "That's how important it is to me. And it's important to everybody. But I wanted the players to know that to me, the Blackshirt is more than just football. It's a brotherhood between guys from all different places. It brings us together. You have this common bond."
It's largely about players competing for something bigger than themselves. It gives them a greater sense of purpose. It provides a standard to uphold.
Foreman says players he met in the NFL would ask him about the tradition.
"It seemed like a couple former Nebraska coaches lessened the importance of it," he says. "But Scott's building the program the way he wants it to be. He's trying to build it so it's not horrible every four or five years. So it's sustainable. He knows what it takes to win as a player. That's never going to change. He knows Nebraska's a special place and it's built on mental, physical and emotional toughness.
"In order to have a Blackshirt, you have to have those characteristics along with being accountable and unselfish."
Wistrom and Foreman enthusiastically discussed the subject this week. It's an important conversation. It always should be.
With Frost at the helm, it always will be.
Huskers receiving Blackshirts Monday