LINCOLN — Over the course of one football season, the Nebraska defensive line became a known commodity. In the span of a few weeks after the season, it slid a bit back toward uncertainty.
The past year for the Huskers' defensive line has been anything but boring.
Its story took two more recent twists when top junior college prospect Terrell Clinkscales flipped his commitment from Nebraska to Kansas State, and starting end Avery Moss didn't make the Gator Bowl trip.
But the journey from the 2012 Big Ten title game — when NU's line was flattened for 539 rushing yards in a 70-31 loss to Wisconsin — had already been compelling.
NU signed six defensive linemen in its 2013 class, and coach Bo Pelini announced at his press conference that “we're going to try to use every ounce of depth we have.”
The jewel of that class — defensive end Randy Gregory — arrived days before practice started in August. He turned the heads of every scribe and coach and developed into an All-Big Ten pass rusher and budding superstar. Two more — ends Ernest Suttles and Dimarya Mixon — never made it to camp. Two more — tackle Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice — burned their redshirts and pushed for playing time.
Top tackle Kevin Williams tore his ACL in fall camp and was sidelined for the year. A young line that included Gregory, Collins, Maurice and three redshirt freshmen — Moss, Greg McMullen, Vincent Valentine — took its collective lumps in the nonconference season, culminating in a performance against South Dakota State that left Pelini steaming.
“I know we're young and, trust me, there were some young guys who made those mistakes,” Pelini said after that game. “But that can't be our excuse.”
A smackaround at Minnesota one month later left Nebraska coaches, players and fans wondering: Will it come together for this young bunch? A poor first half against Northwestern only deepened the doubts.
But a switch flipped halfway through the Hail Mary win over the Wildcats when Husker players asked to return to a base defense. Coaches obliged. From there, a young line grew up. Moss returned an interception for a touchdown against Northwestern. The following week at Michigan, NU notched seven sacks.
Despite down-the-stretch losses to Michigan State and Iowa, the defensive line wasn't exactly at fault; in the last six games, it held opponents to 3.1 yards per carry and 135.5 rushing yards per game. Had NU duplicated that effort over the entire season, it would have finished in the nation's top five and top 25 in those categories, respectively.
In the 24-19 Gator Bowl win over Georgia, the Huskers held the Bulldogs to 96 rushing yards and put enough pressure on quarterback Hutson Mason to help force poor throws in the red zone. That the Huskers did it without Moss was a reason for optimism — he had emerged as a bookend to the dynamic Gregory and missed the bowl game, Pelini said, for “a personal issue.” And if Moss returned to the team, especially after Gregory announced at Gator Bowl practice he was returning for his junior year instead of opting for the NFL draft, all the better.
But that's not possible for the spring semester; Moss had until last Tuesday to enroll in classes, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln registrar's office said Friday that Moss hadn't signed up for any classes.
Based on conversations with UNL officials familiar with the situation, Moss' return in the fall is unlikely. The World-Herald has requested comment from Moss and Pelini on the matter, but neither has responded. Moss heads to Lancaster County Court on Monday to face a charge that he allegedly exposed himself twice to an on-campus convenience store worker in December 2012.
Moss' absence shifts the responsibility to McMullen, the 6-foot-3, 285-pound sophomore base end who finished 2013 with 16 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack in 11 games. At Gator Bowl practice, McMullen said he'd grown in his understanding of the defense over the 2013 campaign.
“A better understanding of why we use certain schemes and why we game plan,” said McMullen, a 2012 four-star recruit who chose the Huskers over Michigan State, Notre Dame and Ohio State, among others. “Even when you don't get a call from a linebacker. By knowing why we're doing what we're doing by formation, you're able to become a more well-rounded player.”
Another top option at end is junior college enrollee Joe Keels, the 6-4, 275-pound Highland (Kan.) Community College star who flipped from Wisconsin to Nebraska just weeks before signing with the Huskers. Redshirt freshman A.J. Natter — a 6-5, 240-pound, four-star 2013 recruit from Milton, Wis. — will likely have a chance to back up Gregory, who hopes to bulk up in the weight room this winter.
Sliding inside to tackle, the defection of Clinkscales — rated by 247Sports as the nation's top junior college tackle — is not expected to be a giant hit to the Huskers' depth. Clinkscales was more of a bonus — a considerable bonus, had he kept his pledge and academically qualified — than a need, considering Williams will return from his ACL injury and Valentine, Collins, Maurice and junior Aaron Curry return to the program.
Collins started the Gator Bowl; he and Valentine — who had his best game of the year against Iowa with five tackles and a sack — could have the inside track to becoming the top interior linemen in the spring. One 2014 recruit — 6-3, 285-pound four-star prospect Peyton Newell — joins the program in the fall. Newell played a hybrid end spot at Hiawatha (Kan.) High School but projects to tackle in college.
And in the final weeks before the Feb. 5 signing day for the 2014 class, NU remains on the hunt for more end and tackle prospects. The Huskers expect Friday visits from high school end prospects Kevin Bronson (Delray Beach, Fla.) and Lloyd Tubman (Louisville, Ky.), and are pursuing Moultrie, Ga., tackle prospect Jamiyus Pittman for a visit. Tubman is currently committed to Penn State, while Pittman is pledged to Central Florida.