When Mark Manning looks around Nebraska's wrestling room, he knows some tough decisions will have to be made soon.
“We have more depth in our program than we've ever had probably. We'll have some great battles, great challenges to make the lineup,” said Manning, who's in his 14th season as NU's coach. “That's going to help us in March.”
The Huskers, who open their season Sunday at the Warren Williamson/Daktronics Open in Brookings, S.D., have six individuals in the top 20 in InterMat's national rankings. As a team, Nebraska is ranked seventh — the Big Ten has eight teams in the top 14, including No. 1 Penn State, No. 2 Iowa and No. 3 Minnesota.
And while Nebraska starts the season with high expectations, the Huskers will rely on newcomers to make an immediate impact.
Jake Sueflohn, who was one win shy of All-America honors at last year's NCAA championship, starts this season ranked fourth at 149 pounds. But one of NU's newcomers is pushing Sueflohn for a spot in the starting lineup.
Destin McCauley, who spent the last two years at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., comes to Nebraska with an impressive résumé. He won five individual state titles at Apple Valley, Minn. — Apple Valley was the nation's top-ranked prep wrestling team in 2010 and 2011. He also was a Junior World Team member in addition to winning the Junior national freestyle title.
“I think we have two of the best 149-pounders in the country. I'm looking forward to see how that plays out,” said Manning, who added that both have a redshirt season available.
Another newcomer, Pat Downey at 184, also spent the last two years at the Olympic Training Center. Downey earned the silver medal at the 2012 FILA Junior World Championships in Thailand.
Manning said Downey, who is ranked 17th by InterMat, is banged up and will be out of the lineup to start the season.
Tim Lambert, who went 19-3 and won four open tournament titles as a redshirt last season, is ranked 10th at 125 pounds. Lambert is competing with Shawn Nagel, last year's starter at 133, for the spot at 125.
Other newcomers looking to gain starting spots:
» Anthony Abidin, the 133-pound NJCAA national champion as a freshman in 2012, is the front-runner at 141.
“I really like his energy and his effort,” Manning said.
» Collin Jensen is expected to start at heavyweight after going 22-9 last season as a redshirt freshman.
» And at 133, Manning said sophomore Eric Montoya and freshmen Colton McCrystal and Ben Morgan are in the running for the starting spot.
Returning Huskers are competing for spots at 165 and 197.
Caleb Kolb — one of only three seniors on the roster — was the starter at 197 last season. He's competing with Spencer Johnson, who wrestled heavyweight during the second semester last season.
The starting spot at 165 is highly contested.
“165's going to be an interesting weight,” Manning said. “Austin Wilson returns, he won three matches at the NCAA tournament. Micah Barnes showed a lot of promise last year as a redshirt.
“And Brandon Wilbourn, he's probably looked the best in the room for us right now. Brandon's always had the ability, now he's putting it together mentally. It's showed a lot of maturity on his part. I really like where Brandon Wilbourn is because he's shown the moxie and perseverance.”
Huskers are penciled in at 157 and 174.
Junior James Green is back at 157 after finishing second at nationals the past two seasons. Over the summer, Green competed for the United States at the World University Games in Russia.
Green is ranked fourth by InterMat in his weight class. So is 174-pound junior Robert Kokesh, who won 38 matches and placed third at nationals last season. Manning said Kokesh spent about 10 days in August at the Olympic Training Camp in preparation for this season.
“Both of them have made a lot of strides and a lot of improvements from last year,” Manning said. “They're really going to help our younger guys and give those guys in the lineup for the first time confidence.”
Manning said he'll have 20 of his wrestlers, plus redshirts, competing Sunday in Brookings, which will help determine the lineup for later this month.
“It's one thing to do it in the practice room, it's another to do it under the lights,” Manning said.