LINCOLN — Randy Gregory checks his locker every day before football practice. He has to, of course, but he wouldn't mind seeing an extra garment in there: A Blackshirt.
Just two Nebraska defensive linemen — seniors Thad Randle and Jason Ankrah — have them, and Gregory has the same number of tackles (17) as they do combined.
“Hopefully it's pretty soon,” the sophomore defensive end said Tuesday with a smile when asked about getting a Blackshirt. He then added: “Thought it already should have been here. But I'm not worried about it. ... I haven't earned it yet. I'm still trying to do what I can to help the team.”
Through four games, NU's most highly touted defensive recruit from the 2013 class has played like he usually talks in an interview: There's a little extra.
An extra flourish at the end of a tackle. An extra step downfield to clean up a play. An extra head shake to fool an offensive tackle as he takes an inside path to the quarterback. An extra word on the sideline for a defense often in search of loud-and-proud leaders.
The stats so far: 17 tackles, five for loss, a half-sack, five quarterback hurries and a 33-yard interception return for a touchdown. Gregory openly admits he'd like a few more sacks. He wouldn't mind one against Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Again, his answer offers a little extra.
“If I get a clean shot on him, maybe I can take him out,” Gregory said. “Maybe I shouldn't say that. But I always think about things like that, but in the back of my mind I have to remember: He's a mobile quarterback.”
Since he arrived in Lincoln roughly two months ago, the junior college transfer from Fishers, Ind., has had to think about and remember a lot more than just the dream scenario of an unsuspecting quarterback standing in the pocket.
He's had to learn new line techniques, a new defense, and new ways to defend offenses more sophisticated than those he faced at Arizona Western College in 2011, the one year he played junior college football. And he's had to hear the hype about his arrival — Gregory was a four-star prospect and a top-five junior college recruit according to ESPN and 247Sports — and embrace it while blending in with teammates, defensive coordinator John Papuchis and position coach Rick Kaczenski.
“I wanted to see what all the hype was about,” redshirt freshman defensive end Avery Moss said. “He's a real good player.”
Finally, Gregory has had to adapt to the rigors of keeping weight on his 6-foot-6 frame despite a metabolism that probably is telling him to lose it. Gregory put on the pounds over the winter by drinking gallons of milk each week. He now tries to maintain it with an intimate relationship with the Huskers' training table. A lot of fish and ribs whenever they're served.
“It's hectic,” Gregory said. “It's gone by fast. I've had fun. It's taken a toll on my body — but I'm used to that, I guess. I'm happy to be here.”
Gregory has started three games, and Kaczenski still sees plenty of room for improvement.
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“He's still a raw guy,” Kaczenski said. “He's still figuring the game out. But he's got something you can't coach. All the great ones do. Don't let anybody fool you.”
Coach Bo Pelini — typically stingy with praise — has offered plenty for Gregory, whom Pelini said “works his butt off” and gives a consistent effort on every down. Pelini said Gregory has picked up his role in the defense faster than Pelini's most celebrated junior college recruit, Lavonte David, did in 2010.
It's worth noting that David had 44 tackles from his middle linebacker spot in his first four career games in 2010. But the fact that Pelini could compare Gregory favorably in some category speaks to the coach's pleasure.
“Where Randy was after four games is probably ahead of where Lavonte was at that time,” Pelini said. “It didn't happen for Lavonte right away. It took him a little bit of time. Obviously they play some different positions, but I feel really good about Randy Gregory. I think he is going to be outstanding. There's a ton more out there for this kid. He's a talented guy who can do some pretty special things. I like him.”
What's there to like? Pelini pointed to Gregory's “natural football instincts.” Moss said Gregory “added a lot of fire under me” in preseason practice. Moss currently leads NU with 2.5 sacks on the season. Pelini added that Gregory — whose dad, Ken, played at Northwestern — “understands football.”
Gregory said he'd heard about Pelini's compliment.
“I hear little things from JP if I'm doing well,” he said. “Same with Kaczenski. I hear a lot more when I'm doing bad. It's always nice to hear something good come out of a coach's mouth, especially the head coach. But you gotta stay humble and improve from there.”
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