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Major test awaits young Nebraska linebackers

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Dedrick Young, right, leads an inexperienced group of Nebraska linebackers into Saturday's game against BYU. AP Photo/Nati Harnik

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Dedrick Young has been listening to his coach.

The true freshman linebacker apprehensively addressed a throng of reporters this week as he eyed a nearby Nebraska media relations staffer set to cut short Young's first interview as a college football player. And Young recited the words like they'd been replaying on loop in his mind.

"It's just like practice," he said, "but there are people there watching you. You do it every day, so you've just got to treat it like that."

Young was talking about Saturday at Memorial Stadium. He'll play outside linebacker against Brigham Young (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), the first Nebraska true freshman defender to start an opener since cornerback Ralph Brown in 1996.

The season opener, of course, is nothing like practice, what with a crowd of 92,000 in place and hungry after a nine-month wait to dissect coach Mike Riley's first team at Nebraska.

Young, who enrolled in January out of Peoria, Arizona, epitomizes this group of Nebraska linebackers -- out of which the Huskers just don't know what they're going to get.

The linebackers may grow up fast and solidify a defense strong at the line of scrimmage and deep in the secondary. Or they could derail the entire unit.

Linebackers coach Trent Bray inherited these concerns last winter, arriving from Oregon State alongside Riley to find just three linebackers with notable playing experience. Included in that group was now-departed David Santos and Michael Rose-Ivey, who missed last season with a knee injury and will sit Saturday, among a group of five Nebraska players suspended against BYU.

Young impressed the Huskers in the spring. Redshirt freshman Luke Gifford, a converted safety, replaces the junior Rose-Ivey. Junior Josh Banderas handles the middle. He has started 10 games over the past two seasons, shifting spots as he struggled to find a home in former coach Bo Pelini's system.

Banderas ranks as the clear-cut leader this week as the Huskers attempt to contain multi-talented quarterback Taysom Hill.

Riley offers something of a canned answer on the linebackers.

"It's a relatively thin group, but they've done a great job of working," he said. "I think coach Bray has done a nice job of coaching them, and we've been very pleased with their progress."

Sounds like he's not sure what to expect.

The 32-year-old Bray, in his third season as a full-time assistant, has already emerged as a star on the recruiting trail.

By all accounts, he connects well with his players. But Bray, a former star linebacker under Riley and defensive coordinator Mark Banker at OSU, can only work with the thin hand he was dealt.

"It was kind of a challenge," Bray said, "But there was nothing I could do about it, so no point in worrying about it. Just go out there and try to get those guys better. Credit to them, I think they've done a great job -- the young guys especially, of picking up their game.

"It's just football. They're going against great competition every day in practice. It's no different. Now, just 92,000 people are watching. But you've got to go out and play."

Clearly, Bray has coached Young on more than just tackling.

Teammates said they believe in the linebackers.

"That's some place I've seen a tremendous improvement," defensive tackle Maliek Collins said. "I know they're playing with some young guys back there, but those guys step in and they don't miss a beat."

Bray will coach from the east sideline. He wants an up-close view of his group.

Of Young, sure to feel nerves in his debut, Bray said he'll watch the freshman's feet.

"See where he lines up," the coach said. "Watch his movement. You can tell by the way he moves his feet, whether his eyes are in a good spot."

For his part, Young said he's ready.

"I'm going to be excited," he said. "I'm anxious to get out there."

He's not alone in feeling anxious.