• Video Below: Bo Pelini, Rex Burkhead and practice highlights
Photo Showcase: NU football practice (Aug. 8)
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LINCOLN — Chase Rome watched Nebraska make changes at defensive coordinator and with his position coach, never fully realizing how different life would be as a Husker defensive tackle with two new bosses.
After all, it was still the same defense and still the same philosophy. How different could it be?
“Boy, was I wrong,” Rome said. “That was me being young and stupid.”
So now Rome has spent the first five NU practices trying to fine-tune the technique that first-year assistant Rick Kaczenski wants up front. It turns out even minor tweaks to what he already knows can be challenging.
“I've ran it a million times one way, and now I've got to go, ‘OK, not this step ... not this step.'” Rome said. “It's hard to get that ingrained.”
And here's what makes it even harder: Rome, Thad Randle and Kevin Williams missed spring practice because of injuries. That means serious catch-up since they are considered important pieces to go with returning starter Baker Steinkuhler on the interior of the Huskers' defensive line.
Kaczenski wants to play four to six tackles out of a bunch that also includes Jay Guy, Kenny Anderson and eventually Todd Peat, who also missed spring practice and isn't part of the current 105-man roster for preseason camp.
“I hope that's the case,” Kaczenski said of utilizing his depth. “But they've got to earn our trust, and that's what camp is for, that's what practice is for, that's what the offseason is for.”
NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis said the staff has some idea about what Rome, a 6-foot-3, 285-pound sophomore, and Randle, a 6-1, 295-pound junior, can do. Rome started two games last season as a redshirt freshman and Randle has played in 18 as a backup.
But those came when Papuchis was handling the line for former defensive coordinator Carl Pelini — and before Kaczenski arrived for the latter part of Capital One Bowl preparations.
Now they have to show Kaczenski, who came to NU after seven seasons at Iowa, what they're all about.
“I think the coaches did the best that they could keeping us caught up (in the spring), but there are certain things that you just miss when you're not getting reps,” Rome said. “But I think we're optimistic about the drive that puts in you to get things right. You're coming in knowing, ‘OK, I didn't have a spring, that means I've got to work a little bit of overtime.' I think that's a good thing.”
Kaczenski figured Rome, Randle and Williams would come back hungry — and they have so far. All the things involved with football that can wear you down, he said, sometimes don't look so bad when they're taken away.
They might all be full speed now, too, but that's not the end of the process.
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“The big thing with that is just getting confidence,” Kaczenski said. “You might be cleared physically, but they got to clear themselves mentally — just getting back in the ring and throwing some punches, and all those things. But those guys, they're fine.”
In fact, Kaczenski feels good about his entire defensive line. The Huskers can sandwich their top tackles with returning starters Cameron Meredith and Jason Ankrah at defensive end, where they also have Eric Martin and Joseph Carter.
“I think this is an underrated group,” Kaczenski said. “I think there's a little bit more talent than people think, possibly.
“To be honest with you, when I came here and saw these guys practicing I said, ‘Man, I'm walking into a pretty good situation.'”
That was with Kaczenski knowing that Jared Crick and Terrence Moore were on their way out, taking away two defensive tackles who had played a combined 79 games in their Husker careers.
But Kaczenski also has liked his first look at newcomers Vincent Valentine, Aaron Curry, Greg McMullen and Avery Moss.
“If you could get four guys like that every year, they'd make me a heck of a coach down the line,” he said. “So I feel really good.”
Is Kaczenski looking for anything similar to what he had at Iowa? Not necessarily, he said, pointing out that while Christian Ballard might have been 6-4 and 295 pounds, Mitch King stood just 5-11 and Karl Klug made his first start at 248 pounds.
“Ideally we'd all like to have them 6-5, 290 and 4.3 (in the 40), but wherever it fits,” Kaczenski said. “We just want tough, good football players. Defensive linemen are hard to find anywhere.”
Getting the ones you have to stay healthy is also important. As well as getting them all to contribute.
“Even with Jared his junior and senior years, I felt like we played a lot of guys,” Rome said. “And when Jared got hurt last year, it was kind of the same emphasis, that this is a team emphasis to fill this void. We're not going to find one person and stick him in there.”
Rome wants to be one of them. It's a matter now of catching up. Same for Randle and Williams.
“When those guys aren't out there that's unfortunate, but we always say that the train continues to move and they're not going to set the schedule back,” Kaczenski said. “We look at it as an opportunity to find some guys that we may not have been talking about, and I think we did that this spring.
“Then when you get those guys back — you get 'em healthy, you get 'em practicing — it creates some competition and it also creates some depth.”
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