LINCOLN — Ernest Suttles was a late commit to Nebraska's 2013 recruiting class. He hasn't yet seen a regular-season game in Memorial Stadium. So it's almost as if the defensive end is trying to make up for lost time before he even officially reports to NU.
The Tampa (Fla.) Gaither product has spent the spring calling, calling, calling new Husker teammates. He wants to spread the word: He loves his recruiting class. Even if he hasn't met all of it yet.
“I talk to him a lot — a lot,” said incoming tight end Cethan Carter, who will be Suttles' first roommate. “Because of him, I probably won't be homesick.”
“He just calls to see what's up,” West Mesquite (Texas) defensive end Dimarya Mixon said.
“We're already teammates,” is how the upbeat, chatty Suttles describes the budding social circle. “We just want to prepare to compete early. The opportunity is there. Be ready.”
Be ready. The words take on a greater urgency for Suttles' subset of defensive line recruits.
There are six of them — Suttles, Mixon, Maliek Collins, junior college transfer Randy Gregory, Kevin Maurice and A.J. Natter — and on signing day in February, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini didn't hesitate to say he'd look closely at all of them for playing time this season. “I told every kid that I looked at recruiting: 'Get your butt ready to play,'” Pelini said then. “Because that's going to be our mindset. We're going to try to get each one of these kids ready to play. And we're going to try to use every ounce of depth we have.”
Pelini had his reasons, not the least of which was the Huskers' 90th-ranked run defense last season. But NU also lost four major contributors — Eric Martin, Cameron Meredith and Baker Steinkuhler, who used up their eligibility; and Chase Rome, who transferred — off a line that struggled in losses to UCLA, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Georgia. Those teams averaged 7.38 yards per carry.
One expected returning starter, Thad Randle, sat out spring practice to save ailing knees. Two more interior line contributors — Kevin Williams and Aaron Curry — missed whole chunks of last year with injuries. This spring, Pelini moved Alliance walk-on Brodrick Nickens from backup offensive guard to the defensive line.
Four scholarship juniors-to-be — Walker Ashburn, Jay Guy, Tobi Okuyemi and Donovan Vestal — have made little on-field impression in their four years. Another expected key contributor, redshirt freshman defensive end Avery Moss, stands trial in July on a public indecency charge. Two more touted redshirt freshmen — Greg McMullen and Vincent Valentine — had promising springs, but have played no more college football than the newcomers.
“They're pretty short-handed,” Collins said, echoing the narrative that has come to describe the NU defensive line.
Of the incoming players, all but Gregory — a long, lean, top-five national junior college recruit with three years of eligibility — appear on track for a June 10 registration, and Gregory could make it, he said, if all of his class transcripts are received by Nebraska in time.
Nebraska has already prepped linemen for their arrival, sending them a book for nutrition and weight training workouts. Nearly all of the newcomers report weighing more as a result. The 6-foot-3 Collins — from Kansas City (Mo.) Center High School — said he was up to 305 pounds after winning the Missouri Class 2 state wrestling title at 285 pounds in mid-February. Each has a Husker Hudl account so he can study last season's tape and learn Nebraska's line philosophy, stunts and formations.
And with the potential exception of Natter — the Milton, Wis., native is arguably one of the more polished prospects in the entire class — each of the six is considerably raw in his development. But also in common is a potentially high upside.
For instance, until his senior year, Collins was a better wrestler than football player. Gregory nearly played college basketball out of high school and sat out last year at Arizona Western College with a broken leg. Orlando (Fla.) Freedom coaches moved the 6-3, 270-pound Maurice around until his senior year, when he shined at defensive tackle and won all-state honors. Midway through high school, the mother of the 6-4, 250-pound Mixon moved from Compton, Calif., to West Mesquite on the advice of an uncle, who lived there and touted the high school football program.
“When Dimarya came in, he didn't know anything about weight training,” said Mike Overton, Mixon's high school coach. “He got to be decent in high school. When he gets to Nebraska? A year from now, he's going to be a beast.”
The 6-5, 250-pound Suttles is the poster child for NU's talented-but-inexperienced defensive line class. He moved from Harlem in New York City, where his mom is a legal secretary, to live in Tampa with his dad, George Suttles, just before the start of high school. Suttles said he “wanted a lot of answers” from a man he didn't know well.
“And I got a lot of answers,” Ernest said. But his dad was also battling emphysema. Ernest started at one high school in Tampa — Hillsborough — and bonded quickly with a ninth-grade teacher, Suzanne Cooks. When George Suttles died of complications from emphysema, Ernest briefly moved in with Cooks, transferred to Gaither and was discovered while playing basketball in the gym by football coach Jason Stokes.
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“It was a new school, a new lease on life, just wonderful,” Suttles said.
He first played in the spring of his sophomore year. He spent one day at fullback.
“I hit the nose guard and put him on his butt,” Suttles said. He switched to defense. “I've had one hand on the ground ever since.”
He committed initially to Iowa State last fall. Nebraska took notice later. He flipped in January after an unofficial visit and wore a floppy Herbie Husker hat with earmuffs on signing day. He'll arrive in Lincoln on June 7 with his mom, Ernestine Brower, who will see campus for the first time. He calls the whole journey — Big Apple to Big Red — “blessed.”
“I'm going up there to be responsible and do whatever they want me to do,” Suttles said. “But I'll absolutely compete to play right away.”
Gregory's more blunt about the expectations fans already have for him to duplicate the junior college tape of him pouncing on quarterbacks. “I don't call it pressure,” he said from his parents' house in Michigan. “I know what I can do. I'm really confident when it comes to football. I'm not going to get worked up about it. In my mind, I'm going to start.”
Gregory has been taking online courses, including two extra because he said UNL wouldn't accept certain Arizona Western class credits. Whether he shows up June 10 or in July, which is when the defensive end said he'll arrive if the transcripts don't reach UNL in time, Gregory said fans should expect a hungry player. A guy who wants to play all three downs. A guy who can stand up or play with his hand on the ground. A pass rusher who can also shuck blockers against the run.
That last piece — being consistent on first and second down — is in part dependent on the weight Gregory keeps on his 6-6 frame. Right now, he said, he weighs 254 pounds, up 17 from this winter, maintained with a diet averaging 4,200 calories on workout days and 3,200 on off days. He drinks three gallons of milk every five days. His injured leg is now at full strength, he said.
“My parents are probably ready for me to leave,” Gregory said. “I'm costing them a lot in food every week. But they know what it's for.”
Gregory said he “lays low” to keep on track with classes. “I've reached out to a few recruits,” he said, and, yes, he said Suttles reached out to him.
“I'll make friends with them,” Gregory said.
Mixon said creating that friendship among defensive line recruits will be important to the success of the class.
“We'll bond really quick,” he said. “It's going to be 'us' for the next four years. We have to hold the line.”
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