These practice jerseys are a far cry from those distributed in 1964, when Nebraska’s Blackshirt tradition began, as near as anybody can remember, anyway.
Accounts differ on exactly when the originals were purchased and distributed.
And the jerseys were actually not jerseys but rather mesh vests, black ones, pulled over practice jerseys to provide color contrast, in this case the defense from the offense.
Originally, the pullovers were handed out each day before practice and turned in after. Sometimes during practice, a player would be told to take off the vest and give it to someone else.
In any case, the black practice jerseys are just that now, with a Blackshirt skull-and-crossbones logo on the shoulders, along with three white stripes highlighted with red on the back tips.
Eleven Nebraska defenders wore the jerseys for the first time at practice on Monday.
Turns out, they could have worn the jerseys the previous Monday, before the Michigan game, based on their performance at Northwestern. Equipment manager Jay Terry and his staff put the jerseys in the lockers of the 11 that day.
But seniors Cameron Meredith and Will Compton opted not to wear the jerseys, and persuaded their teammates to follow their lead. “We decided as a defense that in order to earn these Blackshirts, we had to beat Michigan,” said Meredith, a defensive end turned defensive tackle.
With depth at defensive tackle depleted by injuries, Meredith moved inside 80 percent of the time, by his estimation, in the Huskers’ 23-9 victory against Michigan.
At 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds (he’s listed at 265), Meredith is small for a defensive tackle. As a result, “once in a while, I’ll get pushed around a little bit,” he said. “But I’m doing all right.”
His quickness is an advantage. And he’s strong enough to hold his own.
“It’s fun, you know. It’s a little bit different, but it’s still defensive line. You still read the guy in front of you,” Meredith said. “I’ll play wherever. I don’t really care. I just want to play.”
So anyway, about wearing the Blackshirts . . .
“We saw ‘em there (in lockers), and we decided not to wear ‘em,” Compton said of the previous Monday. “We came out (for practice), we weren’t wearing ‘em. Coach JP just goes, ‘I respect that decision.’ He was like, ‘That was a good decision.’ ”
Coach “JP” is defensive coordinator John Papuchis, whose initial reaction was slightly different. “I thought our equipment staff had dropped the ball on it,” he said after the Michigan game.
He figured the Blackshirts hadn’t been put in players’ lockers. Only after he found out the jerseys had been distributed did he applaud the players’ decision not to wear them.
That decision was “pretty instantaneous,” said Meredith.
“Me and Will came together and we were like, ‘I don’t think we should wear ‘em until we beat Michigan. That’d be the right thing to do, actually earn them this week.’”
The defense limited Michigan to 188 total yards and three field goals. The Wolverines’ loss to injury of quarterback Denard Robinson in the second quarter was a contributing factor. His replacement, redshirted freshman Russell Bellomy’s first 10 passes were incomplete, and three of his next six were intercepted. Nonetheless, Nebraska’s defense deserved credit for a job well done.
The last two games, “we haven’t made a lot of big mistakes,” coach Bo Pelini said of the defense. “Our mental errors have been few and far between. That’s a big deal and a big difference. When you don’t have mental errors, you don’t create big issues for yourself.”
By defeating Michigan, the Huskers now have the head-to-head tie-breaker with their most likely challenger in the Legends Division. If the teams have the same conference record at the end of the regular-season, Nebraska would get the nod for the Big Ten championship game.
Both have four games remaining, however, and much can happen.
“The last two weeks are over with,” Pelini said.
First up for the Huskers is a trip to Michigan State.
And for now, the Blackshirts are back, literally as well as figuratively. But “we still have to earn ‘em this week and every week until the end of the season,” said Meredith.
The decision to continue wearing the black practice jerseys won’t necessarily be theirs.