ST. JOHNS, Fla. — True freshman Maliek Collins has improved enough lately to narrow the gap between him and the other three defensive tackles in Nebraska's top rotation.
Coach Bo Pelini said the four on the interior of the D-line are pretty interchangeable now. Collins, a 300-pounder from Kansas City, Mo., has been impressive of late, Pelini said.
“He's grown and he's going to continue to grow,” Pelini said. “He's really come on. He's not a freshman anymore.”
Collins is expected to share reps with senior Thad Randle, sophomore Aaron Curry and redshirt freshman Vincent Valentine in the Gator Bowl on Wednesday.
Valentine said he isn't sure how playing time will be divided.
“I'm pretty sure everyone will play a lot,” Valentine said. “Whoever's playing the best, they'll get the most time.”
Building chemistry with QBs
The extra bowl practices have allowed Nebraska's quarterbacks to improve their on-field chemistry with a group of receivers who spent all offseason working with starter Taylor Martinez.
It's been an ongoing process all season for redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong and senior Ron Kellogg. But with game preparation for Georgia spread over two-plus weeks, NU has had time to fine-tune its passing attack.
Some of the focus has been on timing — each receiver tends to run routes at different speeds, Armstrong said. Every rep has continued to help the receivers get used to the differences in how Armstrong and Kellogg throw the ball, too.
The Huskers hope to see the results Wednesday.
“Getting out here and being consistent every day, catching more and more balls,” redshirt freshman Jordan Westerkamp said. “The relationship builds a little bit more, a little bit more, a little bit more. We've had so many reps with these guys. It's nothing now. We've got it under control.”
Punt practice for Westerkamp
Westerkamp said he's gained confidence as a punt returner as the season's progressed, but he'll still take an extra rep when he can.
While most of the team was participating in a kickoff drill Saturday, Westerkamp stood at one corner of the other end zone and fielded punts. Sam Foltz, set up at the opposite sideline, booted high-arching punts that Westerkamp had to corral in the rain.
“I'm still working,” he said. “I've still got a lot of work to improve.”
Westerkamp returned punts in high school, but didn't practice at that spot while redshirting in 2012. He averaged 2.7 yards per return and lost two fumbles this season, and he took responsibility for that this weekend.
His teammates on the return team are “doing a great job,” Westerkamp said. “I've just got to step up my game.”
New matchups in secondary
Nebraska's defensive backs may not be able to draw on much game experience from last season's Capital One Bowl to prepare for the tendencies of Georgia's receivers.
The Huskers will likely see several new faces in Wednesday's rematch.
Tavarres King had a 75-yard touchdown in the 45-31 Georgia win in Orlando, Fla., but he was drafted after the season. Sophomore Justin Scott-Wesley had 67 receiving yards, but he is out with a season-ending knee injury. Chris Conley caught two touchdown passes, but a sprained ankle might limit him Wednesday. Junior Michael Bennett is the Bulldogs' second-leading receiver, but he didn't play against NU last season.
Still, junior cornerback Josh Mitchell said he thinks he has a pretty good idea what to expect from Georgia's receivers.
“Fast, fast and really good route runners,” Mitchell said. “When you combine those things, you're going to have a really good group.”
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