LINCOLN — Jake Cotton calls him a computer. Mike Moudy says he’s the “brains of the offense.”
The fifth-year senior is finishing work on a double major in math and history. He turned down Ivy League schools and might be a candidate to become the next academic All-American for the Nebraska football program.
But center Mark Pelini does have his academic kryptonite.
“When he does math, he can’t do it in shoes,” Cotton said. “He has to wear sandals. Even if it’s winter, he’ll have to wear sandals to math class.”
It’s true. Pelini even confirms it.
“Whenever I’m wearing shoes I just get uncomfortable,” he said. “So if I have my shoes on while I’m doing math, it’s just annoying to me. My feet annoy me, so I always have to take my shoes off.”
Pelini has no such trouble in cleats, however, and his knowledge of the Husker offense has led him to a place that few would have predicted when he walked on back in 2010.
The 6-foot 290-pounder will start at center when NU kicks off the season Saturday against Florida Atlantic. He’ll make the line calls, share information with starting guards Cotton and Moudy and see things that few sometimes see.
“We’ll barely hit on something in meetings and they’ll call the play, and he’ll say, ‘Hey, look out for this look. We got this look. Go here or do that,’ ” Cotton said. “And that’s within not even the two seconds we have before we get the snap.
“I think the best comparison to Mark would be the NORAD computer in the movie ‘WarGames.’ It simulates nuclear war and it never stops playing the game. Mark never stops thinking what may happen.”
It started when Pelini first picked up the Husker playbook and — rather than be intimidated by the size and scope — immersed himself. It had to be that way for an undersized and under-recruited player from Youngstown, Ohio, who was giving NU a shot mostly because his uncle was the head coach.
Otherwise Pelini was considering Yale, Columbia and Army, where his chances to play might have been better but the football not so great.
“People say, ‘Why didn’t you go to the Ivy League, get that education?’ ” Pelini said. “But this place is the perfect balance for both — great academics and then the highest level of football. In the end, whenever I weighed the two, this was the easiest choice, the best choice.”
Pelini gave himself a chance at NU by understanding the game better than most. He eventually played seven games in 2012, then started two of the 13 a year ago.
“I wouldn’t say it came easy,” he said. “I just know that the mental side of the game is more important for me than a lot things just because of my size and other things. I needed to be better at the mental part of the game.
“Conceptually and just knowing the plays and what you’re running and how to do it, I learned that pretty fast. It takes time to develop the different types of techniques and implement them on the field, so it takes a lot of practice time for that.”
Pelini is taking one last math class this semester and finishing his thesis for history, then will graduate in December. He carries a 3.33 GPA, and Cotton said he could see Pelini doing just about anything in the future, including coaching.
“He’ll be successful with whatever he does,” Cotton said. “Very smart guy. He’s a computer. He’s a machine.”
Right now he’s taking it to the field for one last season, winning the job he’s been chasing for several years.
“He’s the brains of the offense, honestly,” Moudy said. “He’s the smartest guy in that room (of offensive linemen). So it’s always good to be next to him. He’s making all the calls and everything like that, and all you’ve got to do is step in line behind him.”
Pelini sees the academic and athletic success as “interconnected.” Work hard, study hard, take no days off. Take your shoes off if you have to from time to time.
Some of the payoff comes Saturday, when there won’t be anything that Pelini fails to understand. If only for a second, he can savor standing there with the No. 1 offense.
“It’s a pretty amazing feeling,” he said.
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