LINCOLN — Working the same muscles will grow old.
Drilling without pads and no hitting will lose its pizzazz. In short, the sense of urgency for preseason practice preparation inevitably will fade as pool-party weather returns this summer. It's just human nature.
And when it happens, that's when seniors Jason Ankrah and Thad Randle, Nebraska's only two seasoned veterans on the defensive line, must step in and lead.
Nebraska's coaches have made it clear that lapses in concentration this summer by members of their inexperienced unit will jeopardize development. And at this point, that's something no one on the Huskers' D-line can afford.
By August, Nebraska will devote scholarships to 15 defensive tackles and ends — other than Ankrah and Randle — and none will have faced the rigors of week-to-week game action in a physically demanding conference.
The reality: The Huskers may need contributions from at least a half-dozen of those youngsters, and after the spring semester ends, coaches can't start working with them until August.
That is why NU defensive coaches pulled Ankrah and Randle aside last week to discuss an offseason improvement plan centered around the basics. Sort of a crash course on coaching. The players have video cut-ups, examples of exercises, game film. Start with stances, then steps, then hands ...
“We prepare as many tools as we can for them,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “But it's the leadership of this football team that has to make sure (players remain) accountable.”
If the young linemen can limit their adjustment to the scheme's responsibilities and the position's nuances, it could alleviate growing pains this fall.
From all accounts, the unit made steps in the right direction during the second half of spring practice.
Said sophomore defensive tackle Kevin Williams: “We've got the tenacity. But the biggest thing was the mental aspect, just knowing your assignment and getting locked in.”
The improvement wasn't as evident during the spring game, when Husker quarterbacks comfortably surveyed downfield and young running backs escaped around the edge. The veteran offensive line stonewalled rushers at the point of attack and at times rode D-linemen 5 or 10 yards downfield.
Ankrah was the only D-lineman who caused repeated disruption, and even then his aggressiveness got him out of position at times.
But the NU coaches aren't using that afternoon to make their full assessment of the defensive line.
Randle and redshirt freshmen Vincent Valentine and Greg McMullen didn't play due to injury concerns. Those who were on the field received more snaps than normal because of those injuries.
Six Husker additions, including junior college transfer Randy Gregory, were monitoring the action from the stands or on television.
Gregory watched with his dad from their home just outside Detroit. Naturally, they focused on individual action in the trenches, just to “get an idea of how they play,” Gregory said.
He knows spots are open, but Gregory acknowledged that the adjustment won't be easy.
He used to be the stud junior college rusher who simply used his athleticism to maneuver around blockers. And he had to sit out the 2012 season at Arizona Western College with a leg injury. Plus, there's a lot to study, he said.
“I've heard the defensive scheme is tough to catch on at first,” Gregory said. “I've never really had a problem learning the playbook, but I'll have to figure it out when I get there.”
The 6-foot-5 defensive end is set to arrive in Lincoln in June, hoping to be 250 pounds by August. He's tracking his calories and sticking to the workout plan prescribed by Nebraska's strength staff.
But one can assume that Gregory, like his soon-to-be teammates, will need snaps in front of raucous crowds on pressure-filled game days to complete the growth process.
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Ideally, Papuchis said, Nebraska is at the point in September where it can rely on starters to average at least 40 snaps per game, while four to six backups rotate in and out for 20 plays each.
Assistant Rick Kaczenski, the D-line coach, told his players that everyone is in the mix.
“They're all starters. They're all getting ready to play,” he said. “We can't wait for this guy to make a play or this guy to start a game. They have to have the approach that 'I'm the guy.' If they're waiting for somebody else, they're the wrong guys.”
But will Kaczenski have enough reliable linemen to choose from?
The Huskers' attempt to build depth up front has been a common offseason storyline, though the concept often fizzles away as the season grinds on. Injuries have depleted the unit the last two years. Elite talent separated itself from the reserves in the three seasons prior.
But rarely has Nebraska been this unproven on the defensive line, the position group that seems to be the most vital in coach Bo Pelini's scheme.
The D-line is supposed to clog running lanes and occupy blockers so linebackers and safeties can make plays. It contains quarterbacks within the pocket on passing plays, then collapses that space quickly when initial reads are covered up.
Pelini's confident he has the players to get there. They just have to start by making an unwavering commitment this summer.
“You can't just wait until the lights go on,” Pelini said. “There's a lot of work (to do). You've got to make use out of every opportunity. There are going to be a lot of days between now and when we get back together to start practicing and before we play a game that provide them with opportunities to grow.”
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