LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nowhere is Nebraska's youth movement on defense more apparent than at linebacker.
One year ago Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry were beginning their senior seasons in high school. Saturday night they were in the starting lineup at linebacker against Southern Mississippi.
The roommates just might be there again this week when No. 16 UCLA (1-0) comes calling at Memorial Stadium.
"It's not often you have two true freshmen starting at 'backer," defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, "but I think it's a good thing in terms of big picture and the long term of this program. Right now, we're playing the best players, and those two are the best."
Banderas' emergence might be the most surprising. He's playing middle linebacker, a spot that requires him to be a vocal leader who can relay defensive calls and communicate adjustments based on what he sees in front of him.
"Josh has kind of an 'it' quality to him in terms of having some poise and command," Papuchis said.
Gerry is listed as the weakside linebacker, but he acts as a linebacker-safety hybrid in the dime defense, which the Huskers (2-0) often use against the spread offenses they regularly see.
The abilities of Banderas and Gerry will be put to the test against UCLA's Brett Hundley-led offense, which made Nebraska's defenders look silly in the open field while rolling up 653 yards in a 36-30 win in Los Angeles last year.
Banderas said he still has a lot to learn, but has made a quick adjustment to the speed of the game.
"The most change from high school is before the snap," he said. "It's in the film room and knowing what to do on every snap. During the actual plays, it's just going out and playing football like I have forever."
Banderas is a familiar name to longtime Nebraska fans. Josh's father, Tom Banderas, was a tight end for the Huskers from 1985-87. The elder Banderas was a punishing blocker who had a knack for getting open on the few occasions when he was called on to be a receiver. He caught just 16 passes in his career, and 10 went for touchdowns.
Josh Banderas was a four-star recruit at Southwest High School in Lincoln and passed on scholarship offers from Oregon, Vanderbilt and Kansas State, among others, to be Nebraska's lone in-state recruit in 2013.
Coach Bo Pelini said he knows it puts a lot of pressure on Banderas to start at one of the premier defensive positions. Banderas had three tackles and a pass breakup in the 56-13 win over Southern Miss.
"He's got a great demeanor about him, and he understands the game and he's really worked hard at it," Pelini said. "He asks the right questions and he gets it. He gets football. He's got a long way to go as a player, but I think his potential and his ceiling is very high. I think he can be very special down the road if he stays on course."
Gerry, out of Washington High in Sioux Falls, S.D., is the Huskers' first scholarship player from South Dakota since 2003. As much as the Huskers wanted the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Gerry for his football ability, they also needed his speed.
The South Dakota high school 200- and 100-meter champion gives Nebraska a strong open-field tackler. He was credited with two stops Saturday.
"Starting or not starting, I just go out there and do my job," Gerry said, "and I count on my teammates to do their job, and at the end, the score shows it."
Redshirt freshman Michael Rose and sophomore David Santos backed up Banderas and junior Zaire Anderson spelled Gerry.
"I think we have a number of guys, and I think the competition is making that group better," Pelini said. "They know at the end of the day, you've got to put it on film during the week or you're not going to be out there."
Santos started the opener against Wyoming at middle linebacker and made 12 tackles, but he didn't enter Saturday's game until the third quarter. Communication was a huge problem against Wyoming, and Pelini lauded the work of Banderas in that area against Southern Miss.
Pelini said Santos, who started one game last season and appeared in all but one, isn't out of the picture.
"He knew what the stakes were this week during practice and he's a prideful kid," Pelini said. "Believe me, David is going to play a lot of football for us, but when you're in a (competitive) situation, it's how you respond."