It all began with a decision to have permanent captains for the 2013 season.
Head coach Bo Pelini made waves in early June when he decided to select certain players as captains for the entire upcoming season. Prior to this decision, Pelini had rotated "game captains" for each coin flip, allowing the team to elect season captains at the end-of-the-year team banquet. Before Pelini, this style of selecting captains had only taken place from 1930 through 1949 and 1954 through 1957.
Keeping the surprises coming, Pelini made waves once again at Wednesday's practice.
Seven defensive players proudly walked out of practice wearing something that caught the attention of those in attendance—Blackshirts.
Those seven players were senior defensive linemen Jason Ankrah and Thad Randle, sophomore linebacker David Santos, senior cornerbacks Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Ciante Evans, junior cornerback Josh Mitchell and junior safety Corey Cooper, per KETV 7 Omaha.
The Blackshirts tradition dates back to Bob Devaney's third season as Nebraska's head coach. From the first day of their existence, the black practice jerseys went through various philosophies on how they should be distributed, fully dependent on the season and the coach.
For a period of time, the Blackshirts were earned practice-by-practice, requiring players to work for the coveted jersey daily. By the time the early 2000s rolled around, the jerseys were hung in a player's locker prior to the start of the season.
That is, until Pelini was hired.
In his first season as head coach, Pelini decided giving out jerseys prior to the season was not a part of his philosophy. With that decision, no Blackshirts were seen until later in the season.
On Nov. 8, 2008, Nebraska faced the Kansas Jayhawks at home. The year prior, Kansas had embarrassed the Huskers with a 76-39 victory. With a new year and a new coach, Nebraska was looking for redemption.
Nebraska's defense played a major part in the 2008 matchup, helping secure a 45-35 win over the Jayhawks. It was also the game in which former Blackshirt Ndamukong Suh exploded for a career game that included 12 total tackles and 2.5 sacks. Believing that Blackshirts are earned on the field, Pelini handed out the jerseys soon after.
Five seasons passed with the same mentality. Until Wednesday's practice.
Proud of 7 guys on Defense earning blackshirts today. They epitomize what the tradition means.— Bo Pelini (@BoPelini) August 28, 2013
When the seven defensive players left practice sporting black jerseys, many assumed Pelini had handed out Blackshirts. His tweet confirmed the suspicion and a shift in the coach's philosophy.
This change shows a confident Pelini. The coach has faced his fair share of criticism recently. When he closed practice to the media and former players, many expressed their frustration over the coach's decision.
Handing out the Blackshirts, along with naming permanent captains, silences some of those frustrations.
However, do not assume Pelini gave out the jerseys for any reason other than that he felt the timing was right. Defense coordinator John Papuchis put the reasoning into perspective.
We decided that some of the veteran guys, some of the leadership, have done a tremendous job helping the younger guys on our defense come along. Their effort on the field, their attitude, their work in the meeting room. If part of being a blackshirt is being defined by your work ethic, your attention to detail, and the leadership you bring to the team – the guys we awarded them to are certainly all of those things.
How do you feel about Bo Pelini's decision to hand out the Blackshirts before the season begins?
This decision is a positive one. It solidifies defensive leaders, something the Huskers need. The majority of the offseason has been spent praising the impressive Nebraska offense and questioning the young defense. The new Blackshirts provide a different focus for the Huskers. Opposing teams, as well as fans, have reason to believe this group of defenders is different from years past.
Pelini wants a little trust this time. His decision to name seven Blackshirts on the Wednesday before the first game is a statement. It is a statement that says while this group may be young, there is no reason to believe they won't pull their weight.
Could Pelini's decision be a sign of what's to come? It very possibly could be. Until Saturday's matchup with Wyoming, it will be hard to really determine what this defense can do.
With Blackshirts in hand, it's hard not to believe this defense isn't ready to compete. That alone is a shift in the thinking of previous years and a nod to the expectations of the past.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are courtesy of Huskers.com.