LINCOLN — If Randy Gregory emerges as the dominant pass rusher Nebraska has recruited him to be, Husker fans could trace their good luck back to a cafeteria 15 miles from the Mexican border.
In the summer of 2011, Gregory knew he wouldn't academically qualify out of high school in Fishers, Ind., to play football at Purdue.
“I got lazy,” Gregory said matter-of-factly of his schoolwork.
The Boilermakers wanted to place him in junior college. But Gregory's 6-foot-6 frame intrigued three schools — Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois and St. Peter's (N.J.) — enough for him to get late basketball offers. Get back on track in school, join the team and hoop it up.
Gregory nearly pulled the trigger for basketball. Junior college football can be cutthroat. Merciless. Think of the docks in “On The Waterfront.” Too many guys battling for too few jobs.
But Arizona Western College in Yuma offered something a lot of junior colleges did not. And, yes, it swayed Gregory's decision toward football.
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“A great meal plan,” Gregory said. That's $102 on a card at the beginning of the week. Make it last. Gregory did. The prices in the cafeteria weren't exactly cheap and the food is not exactly fancy — grilled kielbasa, pork cutlets, potato leek soup — but it beat hunting down fast food joints.
Purdue got its wish — or so it thought. Arizona Western got its man — for a little while. The lanky 237-pounder started just a handful of games and missed all of 2012 with a broken leg.
But in that season of snaps, Gregory flashed the kind of off-the-ball speed and athleticism that make him one of the top junior college recruits for the 2013 class. ESPN ranks him No. 2 overall. 247Sports has him No. 4. Rivals and Scout rank Gregory just outside the top 10. This is the territory previously occupied by Husker recruits Demorrio Williams, Zack Bowman, Andre Jones and Lavonte David. Rare air.
A highlight film of Gregory's freshman year at Arizona Western shows why.
The kid who grew up idolizing Walter Payton jukes offensive tackles like a running back would, then pounces on the quarterback like a Buddy Ryan Bear. He runs 10 yards laterally to chase down a ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage. On one pass rush, he hits the quarterback's arm and the ball shoots 30 yards in the air, into the waiting arms of an Arizona Western teammate. As a freshman, he had nine sacks, 21 tackles for loss and probably that many hurries — and Gregory played sparingly to start the year because of a broken wrist.
“Randy has a great first step,” Arizona Western coach Tom Minnick said. “He gets off the ball and rolls those hips up. Great feet. His speciality — because he's so darn explosive — is to rush that passer.”
Gregory plans to do that at Nebraska instead of Purdue, which collapsed under the pressure of a potential Big Ten title run and fired coach Danny Hope. NU started recruiting him in late September and sold him during an official visit for the Oct. 27 win over Michigan.
“It felt like I was a hero,” Gregory joked of his visit. “I've never been in a stadium that was so packed.”
The other reason: coach Bo Pelini.
“My type of coach,” Gregory said. “He's into defense and knows how to coach it. He's going to get in your face. I'm used to that. My parents like him because he'll kick my butt if I need it.”
At Arizona Western, Gregory often stood up outside the offensive tackle on third-down plays, tried to bolt around him, and ducked back inside if the tackle overcompensated. Nebraska occasionally used end Eric Martin in a similar fashion on third downs in 2012. Martin finished with 8.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss.
But Martin had only one year in that role. Because Gregory missed 2012 at Arizona Western, he should have three at Nebraska. And his height makes it much harder for a quarterback to throw over him. Ideally, he's a cross between Martin and former Husker end Zach Potter.
Where Gregory wants to grow is “as a three-down guy.” That is, he wants to slow up Big Ten running games as much as he does their passing attacks. That'll take tutelage from defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski — who at Iowa briefly recruited Gregory out of high school — and 15 more pounds on his frame. Minnick said a season out of football has actually helped Gregory gain weight.
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“Normally, it seems like the pounds just melt off of him,” Minnick said.
Gregory said he wants to reach 250 to 255 pounds. Nebraska's training table — probably a cut above the Arizona Western cafe — should aid in that pursuit. Now, the goal is to stay on track academically, something Gregory didn't do out of high school. Minnick said Gregory “is so smart he could write an 'A' paper in 20 minutes.” Gregory, whose dad, Kenneth, played college football at Northwestern, agreed.
“But I like to procrastinate,” Gregory said. “I'll wait until the last minute to get it done.”
He's on track now — and has returned to his parents' new home in Michigan to make sure he stays that way. He took two online courses recently and did well.
“Too many temptations in Arizona,” Gregory said.
As in the summer of 2011, Gregory said he sees a chance at a football future that's too good not to pursue. And it comes with a few more perks than a great meal plan.
“I haven't had the true college experience yet,” he said. “Be on the big stage. I'm ready to practice and go to work. I'm ready to commit to it.”
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