You Can See It and Feel It. A More Confident Pelini Is, in a Word, Upbeat
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Tuesday was a pivotal, perhaps even a ground-breaking day in the Bo Pelini Era.
A number of words have been used to describe Nebraska's ultra-passionate head football coach, but on the eve of Nebraska's first 2010 spring football practice, a new one became part of the vocabulary when Eric Olson of the Associated Press had the audacity to tell a roomful of reporters that Pelini seemed "upbeat".
Everyone on the sixth floor of Memorial Stadium's press box seemed to chuckle when Olson made the observation. So did Pelini, who walked into the room as refreshed as a fitness instructor and walked out of it an hour later as upbeat as you'll ever see him.
I know it's just March, so no one was really expecting to see one of those patented Pelini glares that can accompany a suspect question. But Pelini was so comfortable and so confident Tuesday that he would have aced a Dale Carnegie oral exam on how to win friends and influence people.
He found something to like about every aspect of every question he fielded, and those behind the microphones and cameras could only reach a rather simple conclusion - Bo is more comfortable than ever with his team depth, more confident than ever with his coaching staff and more optimistic than ever with talent that is about to be woven into an ever-evolving culture that seems to get better with age.
Instruction is, perhaps, the key word for a coach who lives by what's taught and grades by what's caught. The class setting is right where Bo Pelini wants it ... hungry and eager players ready and willing to learn from an equally hungry and eager coaching staff.
How else do you explain Pelini's uncharacteristic burst of enthusiasm Tuesday, especially when he'd missed a plane from Chicago the day before and still saw sunshine through the lens of 15 spring practices that will give him and his staff the opportunity to hone what the Huskers showed at the Holiday Bowl in San Diego?
The Goal: Physical Domination in the Big 12
Twelve of those 15 practices, we should point out, will include pads, so Nebraska coaches can see what they crave most - which players are ready to stay focused on the process, to compete every day and to make the Huskers the most physically dominant team in the Big 12 Conference.
"In the end, we need to be a hard, high-effort, physical football team," Pelini said, "and that's the way we're going to practice."
When Olson asked Pelini why he was so upbeat, Pelini replied: "I don't know. I'm excited. I like spring ball. I love every aspect of it. It gives you the opportunity to really develop your team and find out about how guys learned. To me, this is big. I don't read too much into it, but I think it really gives you a chance to take all that work they put in the winter, put it on the field and really start getting your guys developed."
By guys, he meant veterans, redshirts, newcomers, touted recruits, scout teamers and walk-ons who would like to carve their names into a depth chart that will exist only in a locked bank vault somewhere in the backs of Bo Pelini and his assistant coaches' minds. That was the first point Pelini made Tuesday before climbing onto his soapbox of optimism.
Clearly, this is a head coach who now firmly believes that his players are properly immersed in a system that enables them to understand the big picture and to help develop and push their teammates every bit as hard as they will push themselves. Everyone who plays for Pelini embraces development in the winter, spring, summer and fall as a never-ending pursuit of conditioning, fundamentals and techniques that are required to compete at the highest level.
"It's not about scheme," Pelini said. "It's about how-to rather than what. That's just our philosophy as a staff, and it's not a time to have the pen last, and do all those things you do game-plan wise."
Spring practice is a time for Pelini and his staff to do what they enjoy most - teach and motivate. Frankly, they can't wait to see which veterans are ready to take their game to the next level and what younger players can take the baby steps necessary for them to even get on the elevator.
The lifting marks and the running numbers from winter conditioning were crucial, but they won't determine a depth chart that Pelini says wouldn't even be worth the paper it's printed on. Competition, especially in the spring, is much more than individual improvement. It's a collective drive for team improvement - a reinforcing philosophy that helps everyone understand, develop and embrace what it will take to beat the biggest and the best teams anywhere, any time.
He Likes His Team's Attitude and Leadership
For Bo Pelini, progress is this spring's most important product.
"Our team has a great attitude right now," he said. "I really like our football team. Forget about the talent and expectations and all that other stuff. I like the way they go about their business. I like the way they work. I like their attitude. I like their leadership. I like the type of football players we have on this team and the way they've come together.
"I think our culture is starting to take hold, and that's exciting to me," Pelini added. "You don't read about our guys for the wrong reasons in the paper (or) on ESPN, knock on wood. They represent this program the right way, and they're doing things in the classroom and the workouts and every aspect of their life here. They're doing things the right way right now, and that gets me excited about what we can do in the future."
The future starts Wednesday, and Pelini admits he can't wait to heat up the competition that will carry through the summer and give his team the momentum he wants to see when fall camp begins. He relishes the opportunity to develop players every day in practice and to teach them every day in meetings. "That's what this time of year is for," he said. "To me, that's what spring practice is all about."
Pelini covered every subject imaginable Tuesday (Check 2010 Husker Spring Football Headquarters) - from Zac Lee's recovery and Mike McNeill's move to wide receiver to injuries and how you can accelerate the development of junior college linemen. He talked about Rickey Thenarse, the competition at quarterback and the decision to remove green "non-contact" practice jerseys. He talked about position changes, an upcoming clinic for 1,000 coaches, depth at cornerback and who might emerge at defensive tackle after losing Ndamukong Suh.
In addition to elaborating on his running backs and the running game Pelini praised James Dobson, the Huskers' strength and conditioning coach, for helping the Huskers get into the position they're now in. Nebraska's head coach also talked about Olympic gold medals, how difficult it is to have Nebraska's women's basketball record and how he still keeps up with Big Suh.
Pelini made reporters laugh and after doing a radio interview with the Huskers Sports Network, he even camped at the pressroom doorway to watch team leaders handle their own media inquiries.
Amukamara, McNeill and Paul Describe Swagger
Make no mistake. Cornerback Prince Amukamara, tight end/wide receiver Mike McNeill and wide receiver Niles Paul all sat in the same interview chair as their head coach, and all followed his optimistic lead.
In fact, all three openly responded to a certain word that seemed to be part of the air in the press box.
No, upbeat was not that word. It was swagger, and Pelini had certainly laid the groundwork for something that makes others feel good because of his own charisma and presence.
"I think our swagger is what we call it nowadays," Amukamara said of the Huskers' overall team attitude. "I don't know if you guys know what that means, but our swagger for sure has been turned up. I think, it's a new, different style of energy and a different style of emotion that we play with, and I think that's what's helping us become successful."
McNeill was asked to elaborate. "I would say that the swag is high," he said. "I think people realize the potential we have. Obviously, right now, we haven't proven anything, but I think coming off the loss to Texas, which was close, and the big win in the bowl game, I think everybody realizes that we can do something special."
Paul, the Offensive MVP of the 33-0 win over Arizona in the Holiday Bowl, wasn't about to pull away from a theme that had been stated and reinforced.
"Everybody has a lot more confidence in themselves," he said. "It's not too much confidence. We all know that we still have to work hard, but everybody's confidence level is high. We know we're good. It's that type of feeling in there."
The frustration and the doubts that came with four losses have been replaced by the confidence and the commitment of a head coach who is so determined to go well beyond 10 wins that he's even willing to be upbeat, as long as that helps his players get to where they all want to go.
Voices from Husker Nation
It sounds good - not too cocky, but most definitely a belief in themselves and their teammates. A very good possibility of a BCS bowl this year. Lee Stephenson