LINCOLN — Kevin Maurice knew it was possible that Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine might head off to the NFL, and the Nebraska defensive tackle even had a couple of months to digest what it meant after hearing the announcements that they were leaving.
Really, though, it might not have sunk in that they were gone until the Huskers’ first spring practice on March 5, when he looked around and realized that he, Greg McMullen and Ross Dzuris were the veterans left to lead the NU defensive line.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Yeah, I’m a senior now,’ ” Maurice said.
And that’s when the 6-foot-3, 300-pounder also understood that everything would be different for his final season.
“Those were talented players, and there’s a reason they left early,” Maurice said. “But them not being here just leaves a bigger opportunity, a bigger role, for us. Everybody just has to step up.”
To be sure, plenty falls on the shoulders of Maurice, who previously always stood in the shadows of Collins, Valentine and others as he tried to carve his niche.
Now he not only is trying to secure a full-time No. 1 spot for the first time in his career, but he becomes somebody who needs to help some underclassmen like some seniors did for him back in 2013.
That realization also hit during the first practice, with some eager but raw defensive tackles such as Carlos and Khalil Davis among the backups needing guidance.
“It’s when I first found out that, ‘OK, now more of the expectations are going to be on me,’ ” Maurice said. “I have high expectations for myself, but it was not just for me but for helping the other guys out.”
Maurice became a valuable part of the rotation last season at defensive tackle. He made his first career start at Illinois. Even though he missed three games because of a foot injury, he finished with 21 total tackles and two forced fumbles.
NU linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey said Maurice has looked like somebody ready to make another jump during spring practices.
“I’ll tell you what, K-Mo — Kevin Maurice — watch out,” Rose-Ivey said. “I think K-Mo’s going to have one hell of a year. He’s definitely put in the work this offseason. And it shows. K-Mo’s in the backfield probably about every other play. He plays with a good motor.”
Rose-Ivey said it shows that Maurice took away plenty from being around Collins and Valentine the last three seasons. Now Maurice has been “all ears” with first-year NU assistant John Parrella, his third position coach in as many seasons.
“I feel good, especially with Coach Parrella now,” Maurice said. “I feel like we’re in a good place with him.”
NU defensive coordinator Mark Banker said Tuesday that his evaluation last year was that Maurice was an athletic player but needed to become more physical. At times he may have even looked “a little soft, here and there.” Maurice then surprised the coach when given the chance at Illinois, making a career-high eight tackles.
“Once he got in the game, it was just different,” Banker said. “I don’t believe in gamers, guys that don’t do it in practice — and it wasn’t that he wasn’t doing it in practice. It was just that it didn’t look exactly like you wanted it to. And then all of a sudden, he gets a big opportunity in the Illinois game and it was like, ‘Whoa, this guy’s pretty good.’ ”
Banker called Maurice slippery and said the work goes on with his technique, fundamentals, hands and the rest. In the process, Maurice knows that players like the Davis twins are watching and listening, and he wants to be the example that Jason Ankrah and Thad Randle were for him a few years back.
“Now it’s very important, because we need those guys more this year,” Maurice said. “Just trying to get them on track, and they’re making huge strides.”
Maurice will get some veteran help when senior Kevin Williams returns in August. McMullen also has been working at tackle after playing only defensive end until about midway through last season.
But the Collins and Valentine departures no doubt leave Maurice with an incredible chance to show what he can do.
“The upside is tremendous for K-Mo,” Rose-Ivey said.
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