LINCOLN — Nebraska coach Bo Pelini had seen his young team perform well through its first two workouts of training camp, but he sensed a slight wane of energy by the end of a muggy Tuesday night workout inside Hawks Championship Center.
So he told the Huskers what he later repeated to reporters who encircled the coach after practice.
“I don't care how old you are: The expectation is that, when you walk on this field, we expect you to execute,” Pelini said. “And there's a lot of great competition. There's depth at nearly every position. I think it's a great mix of youth and experience on this football team. I like what I've seen, but it's two days in.”
Though the number could increase by the start of school, for now, NU only has 31 scholarship players who are upperclassmen. Pelini's openly admitted that most of the jobs on defense are up for grabs, with relatively inexperienced players vying for them. And the most experienced starter on defense, Andrew Green, is moving to a new position (safety) for his senior year. All five of the major kicking-related jobs — kicker, punter, kickoff specialist, snapper and holder — are up for grabs, too.
Pelini appears as comfortable embracing this situation as he was touting the experience throughout the Husker roster last season. A year ago, know-how was NU's strength. Tuesday, Pelini suggested that certain players, while young, were more prepared for accelerating quickly.
“We have some guys who are maybe a little bit more game-ready than we've had in the past,” Pelini said. “... On the surface, I liked what I've seen in those first couple days. I think those redshirt (freshmen) have a come a long way. Especially those guys up front.”
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That would be defensive end Greg McMullen and defensive tackles Aaron Curry and Vincent Valentine. At Big Ten media days, Pelini called the trio, along with sophomore Avery Moss, his best defensive line recruiting class to that point. He followed it up with six more players in the 2013 class. One has already been kicked off the team. Another, Dimarya Mixon, awaits paperwork, Pelini said, to become eligible. A third, defensive tackle Maliek Collins, went home to Kansas City, Mo., on Tuesday to take care of a “personal situation” and will return Wednesday.
But the highlight recruit of the bunch — junior-college transfer Randy Gregory — stood out Tuesday to reporters watching the opening half-hour of practice. Gregory, who hasn't played much since 2011 because a leg injury kept him out last year, earned a quick reputation for being a pass rusher at Arizona Western. Pelini conceded at Big Ten media days that NU could adjust some of its schemes to accommodate Gregory's talents if the sophomore comes along quickly.
“Randy's looked good the first two days,” Pelini said when asked specifically about Gregory. “Obviously we are practicing in shorts — and obviously he's swimming in it a little bit mentally — but he can play. He showed up in shape. He hasn't struggled at all as far as his conditioning. He reported at 255 pounds and he's been ready to go. His attitude's been great. That's all you can ask.”
So far, Nebraska's installed the base and nickel packages of its defense, with the dime package — which typically involves nickel Ciante Evans and an extra defensive back — still to come. Pelini said the one experienced part of his defense, the secondary, is playing “very, very, very well, which gives us a lot of options on guys who can play multiple spots.”
That variety of athletes has translated into tougher position battles.
“There's great competition happening out there. Guys are getting after it. Guys know there are people after their jobs, which keeps them on edge. That's how you get better.”
Check out video from Nebraska's second day of fall camp:
See what coach Bo Pelini had to say after practice: