LINCOLN — Nebraska assistant coach Rick Kaczenski said the Husker staff didn't call Brodrick Nickens over to the defensive line just because he was a 6-foot-5, 310-pounder who looked the part.
It wasn't necessarily because they saw something in his footwork or technique or motor that led them to believe he would be a good fit at defensive tackle, either.
No, Kaczenski said it had more to do with Nickens' personality and experience, as well as the respect he seemed to demand from his teammates.
“One of the reasons we brought him over was just because of the attitude, the toughness, his demeanor and his competitive spirit,” Kaczenski said. “He just kind of jumped in that room and kind of took some things over.”
That was the hope four weeks ago when the NU defensive staff poached Nickens from his No. 2 spot behind Spencer Long at right guard on the offensive line. A defensive line with little experience outside of Jason Ankrah needed something that Kaczenski thought Nickens could offer.
Even as a walk-on with little playing time in his past, Nickens knew what to do.
“I can't be the only guy that they're hearing it from,” Kaczenski said. “There's got to be some peer pressure. And I think he's done a good job of making those young guys — and even some of the older guys — understand what's acceptable and what's not to be tolerated.”
In the process, Nickens also has created an opportunity for himself heading into his senior season.
The native of Alliance, Neb., has been seeing time with both the No. 1 and No. 2 defensive units as Nebraska tries to find starters and depth at tackle. Until senior Thad Randle returns in August, Nickens is surrounded by underclassmen like Kevin Williams, Aaron Curry and Vincent Valentine.
In short, players who are still learning and maturing.
“They're still learning how to play, learning how to practice, and we needed a guy like that (to help show them how),” Kaczenski said. “I think that's one thing he brought and continues to bring.”
Nickens said Kaczenski never explained it as such. It just came natural.
For example, back on March 9 — just two days after his position change — Nickens could be seen standing in front of the defense and speaking his mind after a poor scrimmage led to a long on-field meeting.
“They just let me come over and be myself,” he said of the defense.
While some things have come naturally to Nickens, not everything has. Learning a new position hasn't been easy. He has had to stop a number of plays during spring drills to say, “Hey, I don't know what I'm doing. Help me out. Show me what I need to do here.”
Head coach Bo Pelini and the defensive staff have been patient, Nickens said, and those instances have slowly started to dwindle.
Has Nickens caught himself missing his old offensive line mates or watching them practice from afar? Not at all, he said.
“The second you switch, it's a switch,” he said. “They're my enemy now. When I'm out there, it's straight cut-throat. It's going at it. There are no friends out there when you line up.”
That includes Long, the All-Big Ten guard who said that Nickens has used his raw talent to beat him a few times despite his lack of experience on the defensive side.
“It's hard to pick up the system straight off the bat, but he's learning,” Long said. “I think if he really gets into his playbook he could become a solid player for us.”
That's part of the reason that Nickens moved. It was a chance to help the team and also a better opportunity for him personally.
“Coach Bo called me in and asked me whether I'd be willing to switch,” Nickens said. “He said I'd have a shot to start over there and play a lot. I said, 'Yeah, sure, I'd love to try. Let's give it a shot.'”
Husker fans will get a chance to see how it's going during the spring game on Saturday. Nickens admitted that at times he might look like a guy who's been playing the position for less than a month.
But he'll be going with that relentless spirit that Kaczenski wanted him to carry across the line.
“I'm willing to keep working and keep working to try and get something right,” Nickens said. “I'll keep trying until I figure it out.”
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