LINCOLN — Kevin Maurice was chatting with a half-dozen reporters recently when DaiShon Neal decided to mess with him, clowning around first behind his teammate and then beside the media crew.
The veteran Nebraska defensive tackle wasn’t bothered at first, but eventually motioned for the redshirt freshman to run along.
So when Neal was joined by sophomore Freedom Akinmoladun — and the two somehow got a TV mic and tried to start their own renegade interview — Maurice had become a little put off by the distraction.
It was harmless fun, but maybe a peek into how Maurice sees things right now: This is it for the senior from Orlando, Florida — there’s no time to waste and he needs a bunch of underclassmen around him to share that same kind of urgency.
“It’s all about leaving this place better than you found it,” Maurice said. “They’re up-and-coming. I was once in their shoes, and I just want to do the same thing for those guys and leave a mark on them.”
It would be easier for Maurice to simply tend to his own business as the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder prepares for his first season as a starter. But the defensive line watched four players with eligibility remaining decide to leave last winter or spring, leaving Maurice, Ross Dzuris and Logan Rath as the senior leaders.
So if NU is going to have the kind of season that Maurice wants in his last time around, there is a long list of freshmen and sophomores at defensive tackle and end who must help — and Maurice has to invest in them.
“I’ve embraced that role, and they’ve took to the learning as well,” Maurice said. “The younger guys like the twins (Khalil and Carlos Davis), and even the ends, they take advice and stuff like that. I tell them, ‘We’re going to need you this year, so you need to step up.’ ”
Maurice and sophomore Mick Stoltenberg are set to start at defensive tackle, with Dzuris and Akinmoladun at end.
The commitment from the seniors and first-year assistant John Parrella, however, has to go deeper with backups such as the Davis twins and sophomore Peyton Newell at defensive tackle, and sophomore Sedrick King, redshirt freshman Alex Davis and Neal at end.
“I think everybody’s working hard, everybody’s getting better every day,” Maurice said. “And Coach Parrella is really pushing us day in and day out. The closer we get to this thing, the more work we’re putting in, that it’s going to pave the way for the season.”
Maurice played in 16 games his first two seasons, then saw a bump in his work a year ago when the Huskers still had Maliek Collins, Vincent Valentine and Kevin Williams at defensive tackle. Despite missing three games as a junior with a foot injury, he finished with 21 tackles, two forced fumbles and one start.
At least part of the reason for Maurice becoming a Husker goes back to Nebraska spending more than two weeks in Orlando in conjunction with playing the Capital One Bowl after the 2011 and ’12 seasons. Maurice committed just before the Huskers’ latter visit to play Georgia.
In fact, the Huskers practiced both years at Freedom High School, his alma mater, where his former head coach served as site supervisor.
Andy Johnson said former NU offensive coordinator Tim Beck was the first to come through Freedom High right after that 2012 season, but mostly with a focus on receiver Jeff Badet, who would go to Kentucky.
“I said, ‘You guys got to see this other kid we got,’ ” said Johnson, now at Boone High in Orlando. “He had a few offers, from places like Wake Forest and Boston College, but I thought he was a little under-recruited. Beck was floored and immediately called John Papuchis, and said, ‘You got to check this kid out.’ ”
Johnson was from North Dakota, so he knew what Nebraska football was all about. He also knew that teams were maybe not getting the full picture on Maurice because of how Freedom needed to use him during his junior season, even though Maurice had come on strong as a senior.
“He was first-team all-state. He was an absolutely dominant player,” Johnson said. “He should have had everybody.
“I don’t know what it was, but maybe it was because he basically played O-line as a junior, and he wasn’t a prototypical O-lineman at about 6-2. And maybe that hurt his recruiting.”
Maurice committed to Nebraska before visiting, and admits the Huskers’ trips to Orlando and Johnson’s developing relationships with NU staff didn’t hurt.
“Once they got my senior tape, after that everything started rolling,” Maurice said. “I was still in the process, a lot of schools were coming at me late, but once Nebraska came in I gave them a hard look.”
That old staff has since departed, but Maurice said nothing else changes. Other than the time that he has left, which is running out.
He is excited about playing next to Stoltenberg, and he likes all the work that the 6-5, 290-pounder from Gretna has done. NU coach Mike Riley said Saturday he was “extra proud of Mick” for how he bounced back from a knee injury last December that kept him out of spring practice.
It will start with Maurice and Stoltenberg inside, but Riley is comfortable with those who can help.
“We needed a lot of development and a lot of coaching and teaching and growth in that defensive tackle position, and that group right now is a pretty good picture,” Riley said. “John’s doing a great job of coaching them and I think that they’ve grown, and I think that they’ll play solidly.”