LINCOLN — Nebraska’s Jason Ankrah didn’t mind hearing the groans and sighs from his teammates at defensive end this offseason when he noticed a mistake and forced them to redo a drill.
He probably would have reacted the same way four years ago.
But Ankrah sees redshirt freshmen Avery Moss and Greg McMullen as guys who’ll be relied on this fall. There might be others within the position group getting significant snaps, too. It’s why Ankrah so adamantly worked to eliminate any possible temptations to settle.
So he pushed them. Winter through the summer, with no tolerance for errors.
If Ankrah noticed poor hand placement or eyes wandering improperly or sloppy footwork, he made everyone retry the drill. Even the simplest of muscle-reflex exercises — like starting with hands on the ground and catching tennis balls — would occasionally require a restart.
“With my D-line, everything I do, I want them doing the same thing,” Ankrah said. “If they don’t do it the same way, or it’s not as close to perfect as it should be, we’ll start over. Then we’ll keep doing it. And it’s full speed.”
The mindset has carried over into preseason practice. Ankrah says it’s what the unit needs.
Ankrah, with 18 career starts in 36 games, is by far the most experienced defensive end on the roster. There are only two other upperclassmen. The other eight are freshmen and sophomores.
It sort of reminds Ankrah of his redshirt freshman year, when just three of Nebraska’s 14 defensive ends were upperclassmen (Pierre Allen was the only one with playing experience). But back then, there wasn’t this kind of established leadership, where veterans were empowered by the coaches to train youngsters.
“There weren’t a lot of vocal leaders to show us the way of how to do it,” Ankrah said.
So he’s transformed himself into that authoritative figure, who was missing from his position group four years ago. Sort of the battle-tested know-it-all who’s constantly looking for a way to advise and instruct everyone playing his position.
It’s a little awkward for him, admittedly. He’d prefer to work in silence, under the assumption that teammates would adopt his habits.
But that’s not what is best for the team, according to Ankrah.
Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski, it appears, would agree.
“Jason wants to leave a great legacy, but he’s also establishing the culture that’s been created long before any of us got here,” Kaczenski said. “He’s doing a great job of making sure everybody’s on board and understanding that we need everybody, every day. Not just once in a while.”
There’s plenty more to do, too. Randy Gregory made a splash during the first week of practice, but the junior college transfer has much more to learn. Freshman Dimarya Mixon’s not even on campus yet. Freshman A.J. Natter is making the adjustment. McMullen and Moss will be asked to produce soon.
And Ankrah himself is trying to become a reliable playmaker for a defense that lost its most disruptive member of the line, Eric Martin.
All of his emphasis on the game’s minor details, in an effort to mold the young guys, has made him a better player, though.
“I’ve noticed little things about myself that I could do, that I haven’t done yet,” Ankrah said.
His desire to improve is one of his best attributes, according to Kaczenski.
“Once guys get older, sometimes they’ll think they’ve figured out this and that,” Kaczenski said. “But Jason’s continued to learn. He’s become a student of the game. Studying himself. Studying the opponent.”