LINCOLN, Neb. — John Papuchis is the youngest defensive coordinator in the Big Ten, and Bo Pelini has charged him with repairing a Nebraska unit that underperformed in the Cornhuskers' first season in the conference.
The 33-year-old Papuchis says he feels no pressure. Rather, he sees an opportunity, one he's waited for since he was an unpaid high school junior varsity assistant a little more than a decade ago.
Pressure, to Papuchis, is trying to make ends meet on a paltry salary year after year and having his wife work three jobs so he could keep following his dream.
No one will ever convince him he didn't pay his dues. That Pelini gave him the job says a lot. The defense is Pelini's baby. He designed the system Nebraska plays. It's Papuchis' job to make sure it's done right.
"He has earned getting to where he is today," Pelini said. "You talk about somebody who made a tremendous amount of personal sacrifice to give himself the opportunity, and he has made the most of it. It hasn't been an easy road for him, but he has taken advantage of it and stayed the course."
Papuchis has been with Pelini since 2005, when he was a graduate assistant at LSU and Pelini was starting the first of his three seasons as the Tigers' defensive coordinator.
No one — not even brother Carl Pelini, the Huskers' former defensive coordinator who left in December for the head coaching job at Florida Atlantic — has worked with Bo longer.
"He's the architect behind it. It's his defense," Papuchis said. "If there is anyone in the world who knows it close to as well as he does, I would be that guy."
Big challenges await Papuchis, linebackers coach Ross Els and two new assistants — line coach Rick Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph. The Huskers slipped to 37th in the nation in yards allowed and 42nd in scoring defense, and five opponents generated more than 415 yards.
Papuchis said he isn't bothered by the perception that he, like Carl Pelini before him, fills the role of figurehead because of Bo Pelini's heavy involvement.
"When it comes to the day-to-day administration in terms of practice preparation, installation of the defenses that are going in each day, that's where the coordinator comes into play," Papuchis said. "Bo's in control of what is going on with the defense. In terms of how it translates to the players, that's where the coordinator becomes involved."
The question then becomes whether it's more difficult for Papuchis to establish his own identity as a coordinator.
"I'm not, to be honest with you, that interested in creating an identity at this point," Papuchis said. "I feel like I'm young in this profession. I need to learn all I can learn and experience as many things as I can experience and, hopefully, what I learn and experience will pay off down the road."
Papuchis grew up in Gaithersburg, Md., and was a two-year starting quarterback in high school. He tried to walk on at Virginia Tech and was cut. He got a job as a volunteer assistant at Blacksburg High, where he scouted varsity opponents and helped with the JV.
"It never bothered him to do whatever needed to be done," Blacksburg coach David Crist said. "He usually had it done before I ever asked him."
After three years at the high school, and with his degree in business management finished, Papuchis got on as a graduate assistant at Kansas under Terry Allen and Mark Mangino.
GAs can stay at one school for three years, and Papuchis found himself unemployed in the spring of 2005.
He weighed several overs, turning down $45,000, plus room and board, to be an assistant on a collegiate club team in Japan to take an internship at LSU under Lou Saban on an "all-star staff" that included Will Muschamp, Jimbo Fisher, Derek Dooley, Bobby Williams and Kirby Smart.
When Les Miles replaced Saban in 2005 he hired Pelini as defensive coordinator. Papuchis stayed on as an intern, and he and Pelini formed a bond from spending hours talking defense and watching film.
Papuchis loved what he was doing, but it wasn't easy paying the bills. He and his wife, Billie, were married in 2006 and lived in a cramped apartment. Billie worked up to 12 hours as a personal trainer at a gym, women's health center and hospital.
"He was a (graduate assistant) for seven years making $15,000 a year," she said. "It's not like he was making $20,000 and working 9 to 5. He worked the same hours as the rest of the coaches."Comment on this story
Those sacrifices paid off when Pelini made Papuchis his defensive line coach after he arrived at Nebraska in 2008. Papuchis coached Ndamukong Suh and oversaw one of the best special-teams units in the nation. Last season coordinating recruiting coordinator was added to his duties.
When Carl Pelini left, Bo Pelini tapped Papuchis for the $300,000-a-year coordinator's job without seriously considering anybody else.
"I've always had high standards for myself and what I expected out of my career path," Papuchis said. "So although I recognize I've been very fortunate to have some of the opportunities I've had, I also believe you have to take advantage of the opportunities. "