LINCOLN — Nebraska coach Bo Pelini has a policy that his football players can't talk to the media until after they've played a game. That would explain junior defensive tackle Tobi Okuyemi's hesitation last week when his name — perhaps for the first time — appeared on an interview request list.
Is it OK to talk, he asked one of NU's team spokesmen. Since Okuyemi saw the field — for a play — last year, technically, he could. But he wanted to make sure.
Lost in the discussion of the Huskers' defensive line struggles last season — and the potential struggles in 2013 — are four redshirt juniors, who, heretofore, haven't made much of a dent in the depth chart. Okuyemi is one of them. The other three: defensive end Walker Ashburn, defensive tackle Jay Guy and defensive end Donovan Vestal.
All were part of a 2010 recruiting class signed two months after Ndamukong Suh blasted through Big 12 foes to finish fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Like the 2013 class that defensive coordinator John Papuchis and line coach Rick Kaczenski don't hesitate to praise, the 2010 group had six line recruits, as well.
One of them, Jake Cotton, moved to offense. He's the leading candidate to start at left guard. Another, Chase Rome, left the team after the 2012 UCLA game, returned shortly after, started later in the year and now transferred for good.
The remaining four — all three-star recruits with multiple BCS-level offers — fight for scraps of playing time in the last spring camp they may have to prove they can contribute major snaps.
“I can't slack off,” Vestal said. “I can't. We've got a young group of D-linemen coming up. Good group. I've just got to be a man.”
Said Kaczenski: “There's got to be a sense of urgency. We have six guys coming in. We're no different from the NFL. Every year, we're trying to get a little bit better personnel, a little bit better player.”
And Okuyemi: “It's now or never, definitely. There's no free rides here. You've got to earn your keep.”
Making a dent
Vestal had, among others, offers from Oklahoma State, Baylor and Arkansas. Ashburn had them from Stanford, Oklahoma State and SMU. Okuyemi had them from Michigan, Iowa and Kentucky. Guy arguably had the best offer list of all, including UCLA, Cal, Texas A&M, Michigan and Kansas State.
In other words, they weren't considered long-term reserves out of high school — not by colleges or recruiting websites. Yet they've combined for two total tackles and a half-sack at NU. Those belong to Ashburn, who's sitting out part of camp with an injury he chose not to disclose.
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What's slowed them down? In the case of the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Vestal, a torn left labrum early in his career set him back and leaves him weaker than he'd like to be.
“It's been haunting me,” Vestal said. “It's a long-term process.”
Okuyemi battled a few problems with his knee. But, mostly, Ashburn, Okuyemi and Vestal all point to playing behind experienced guys, and struggling to master coach Bo Pelini's scheme.
“I didn't know my playbook when I first got here,” the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Ashburn said. “I didn't know it the way I should have known it. I was just trying to get by. I knew that wasn't the correct way. I stepped that up last year.”
Said the 6-2, 280-pound Okuyemi, who has moved to defensive tackle: “When you're young, you're not as mature. I was 18; now I'm 21. Some people are fast learners, others are slow. It took me time to develop physically and mentally and get distractions out of the way. To make sure other things weren't bringing me down.”
All four have had three position coaches and two distinct philosophies to work with, too. Carl Pelini assisted with the defensive line in 2010 before becoming what he called a “walkaround” defensive coordinator in 2011. That's when Papuchis took over the line. Both preached a read-and-react style that took away pre-made running lanes spread Big 12 teams liked to use.
When NU hired Kaczenski away from Iowa, though, Bo Pelini wanted a shift in philosophy, and gave Kaczenski the freedom to implement it. The players like it, Ashburn said.
“He wants us to attack,” Ashburn said. “Attack, attack, attack. Two years ago, we were way off the ball. Last year and this year, we're close to the ball, trying to make plays in the backfield.”
Vestal added: “We're pushing dudes around.”
Can any of them push their way up the depth chart? Kaczenski said he's seen “some things” from Okuyemi and the 6-1, 290-pound Guy at tackle, as they battle for time with sophomores Kevin Williams and Aaron Curry and redshirt freshman Vincent Valentine. Ashburn hasn't practiced this spring. Vestal is working with the No. 2 unit at defensive end alongside redshirt freshman Greg McMullen.
Kaczenski said he wants to see the juniors respond to the opportunity before six recruits arrive in the summer.
“They have to show us. They have to give us reasons to work with them in the fall. We're seeing some things ... it's these guys' third spring. They've had three bowl preparations. It's their time to shine. There's a sense of urgency. That's been communicated from the top down.”
Ashburn embraced the challenge.
“What's football without competition?” he said.
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