LINCOLN — A strength heading into Nebraska’s 2015 football season became more of a question mark heading into 2016 when junior defensive tackle Vincent Valentine announced Monday he was declaring for the NFL draft.
Valentine joined friend and teammate Maliek Collins as early entrants. Collins announced minutes after the Foster Farms Bowl his decision to forgo his senior year. Valentine, who graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree, mulled the decision for a few weeks before posting a goodbye letter Monday on Twitter.
“Playing in the NFL has been my lifelong dream,” the 6-foot-3, 320-pound Valentine wrote. “I am grateful for the opportunity.”
A native of Edwardsville, Illinois, Valentine thanked coaches, teammates, professors and fans for the last four seasons. He wrote he’d “always bleed Husker Red.”
After a strong spring camp in which he often bowled over offensive linemen, Valentine suffered a bone bruise before the 2015 season and struggled to make an impact. He finished with just 10 tackles. Still, his departure leaves the Huskers searching for new starters on the interior defensive line.
One starter figures to be senior Kevin Maurice, who finished with 21 tackles as a junior despite battling his own injuries. Maurice worked often with Collins after practice in defensive line drills.
“I think it was just me maturing and the game slowing down for me,” the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Maurice said in mid-December in regards to his progress as a player. “Just going out there and playing fast, not hesitant, and just having a different mindset.”
Maurice’s future is whatever he wants it to be, Collins said in December.
“I think he has all the potential to be a great player,” Collins said. “It’s just whatever he wants to do.”
Another candidate could be senior starting defensive end Greg McMullen, who occasionally moved inside to tackle last season. McMullen is listed at 6-3 and 280 pounds as well, but is probably an inch taller than Maurice and appeared to carry 20 pounds more during the season.
“Greg McMullen, God bless him, he did it all year for us,” NU defensive coordinator Mark Banker said in an interview last week. “He was a swing guy for us. He played inside and outside.”
Kevin Williams, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility after losing two seasons to knee injuries, hinted after the Foster Farms Bowl that he may not return. Williams has already graduated with a bachelor’s degree and is well on his way to an advanced degree. Williams had four tackles this season in eight games, missing five with a torn groin. He started two games this season.
A Nebraska spokesman on Monday said Williams was still on the roster and he’d heard no word that Williams wouldn’t return.
Other players in the mix at defensive tackle include senior walk-on Logan Rath and sophomores Peyton Newell and Mick Stoltenberg, who had two tackles in nine games this season but hurt his knee in mid-December. Coach Mike Riley said Stoltenberg, a Gretna product, would be “ready to go” next season after having surgery.
And then there are the Davis twins — Carlos and Khalil — who redshirted this season after much-ballyhooed high school careers in Blue Springs, Missouri.
“They made a lot of strides this season,” Banker said of the twins. “We’ve got to have a big offseason with them because, like a lot of good high school football players, their mindset was, ‘There’s the ball, go sic ’em,’ you know? There’s technique, there’s detail of assignments that have to become important.”
No less important will be Nebraska’s continued development of defensive ends. The Huskers lost starter Jack Gangwish and, if McMullen was pushed inside to tackle, they’d have to find a player for his spot, too. Sophomore Freedom Akinmoladun led the team with 4½ sacks, while senior Ross Dzuris had 2½ sacks and a safety.
The Huskers welcome two redshirt freshmen — Omaha Central standout DaiShon Neal and Alex Davis — to the competition and remain on the hunt for a junior college defensive end for the 2016 recruiting class. The most likely target is Butler County (Kansas) player Tramal Ivy. Ashland-Greenwood athlete Ben Stille is committed to the 2016 class, but is a likely redshirt candidate.
The departure of Collins and Valentine continues Nebraska’s star-crossed history on the defensive line. Collins and Valentine were likely the best interior defensive linemen Nebraska has recruited since its 2010 class. All five recruits in the 2010 class either ended their careers early without ever playing meaningful snaps or transferred to another school. Since then, six signees — Todd Peat, Avery Moss, Aaron Curry, Dimarya Mixon, Ernest Suttles and DeAndre Wills — have transferred, while Collins, Valentine and defensive end Randy Gregory declared early for the NFL draft.
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