LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive end Joe Keels admits that his learning curve over the last nine months has been steep.
A 6-foot-3, 250-pound four-star signee from Highland (Kansas) Community College, Keels enrolled in January and was expected by fans to make an immediate, dramatic impact. It hasn’t yet happened, but Keels said he’s “coming along.”
It just took a bit of a epiphany in the form of Nebraska’s struggles against McNeese State for Keels to see what’s in front of him.
“Before that, I knew that I needed to step up, but — I’m not going to lie — I was still kind of lackadaisical about it,” Keels said. “I kept telling myself my time’s gonna come, but after the McNeese game, I saw that we actually struggled and I had to make my time now. So I had to do whatever I can to get on the field the next week.”
Keels got the most action of the young season at Fresno State. He had asked defensive tackle Maliek Collins to watch extra film before the Fresno trip. He called Randy Gregory and together they worked on Keels’ pass rush. When Keels saw action against the Bulldogs, he said, it “finally clicked.”
The process took longer than Keels expected.
“Coming out of junior college, you have all these teams telling you how good you are, and when I got here, I thought, ‘I’m going to step right in and make some plays.’ But it wasn’t like that. It doesn’t matter how good you are: If you don’t understand the technique, they won’t trust you.”
Keels also had a personal loss in spring camp. His dad, Everett Keels, died. With support from teammates and position coach Rick Kaczenski — whom Joe Keels calls “a father figure” — he pushed through and stayed on campus this summer, often working with Collins.
“I really never had too many people looking out for me,” Keels said. “I went through the junior college process by myself. Bounced around. I have (Kaczenski) looking out for me at all times with my best interest at heart. It means a lot to me. I always call and text: ‘Thanks for not giving up on me.’ Because a lot of coaches, after the spring I had, they would have been like, ‘All right, we’ll push you to the back and try to move the freshmen up.’ But (Kaczenski) didn’t do that.”
Hurricanes’ explosiveness worries NU
Offensive weapons? Miami has more than a few, Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said Tuesday night after practice, as the Huskers continued to prepare for Saturday night’s tilt with the Hurricanes.
“At every skill position, they have guys who can take it to the house every time they touch it,” Papuchis said. “And they’re good up front. It’s going to be a challenge. It’s the best offense that we’ve played to date, certainly.”
Papuchis’ biggest concern is Miami’s “big-play ability.” The Hurricanes have nine plays of 30 yards or longer, which is tied for 16th nationally. Nebraska’s tackling of Miami skill players — including wideout Phillip Dorsett and running back Duke Johnson — will be key. Against Fresno State, Papuchis said, Nebraska tackled well in open space.
Johnson, Papuchis said, is the player who can cause the most headaches. He’s run for 277 yards and two touchdowns this year, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He can be a pass-receiving threat, as well.
“He’s a hard runner,” Papuchis said. “He’s pretty relentless. He doesn’t go down easy. He fights through contact, so we have to do a good job of wrapping up, driving our feet, getting to the ball and gang tackling.”
Keels said Johnson is a constant threat to get around a defense, too.
“You have to be disciplined,” Keels said. “If you’re on the side with the tight end to you, you can’t get off, because if they cut off the defense, he’ll bounce it back. He’s a 4.3, 4.2 (40-yard-dash) guy, so if you let him get in the open field, there’s not too many people in the nation that’s going to catch him. Stay disciplined.”
In the passing game, Miami will try to set up big pass plays with a running game that turns into play-action fakes once the defense is sufficiently buttered up for it.
“If our eyes are in the right place, and we’re disciplined in what we do, we’ll be fine,” Papuchis said. “If we’re starting to peek in the backfield and guys are starting to operate outside of what their job is, they’ll have some big plays.”
One potential weakness, at least on paper, is Canes freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya, who’s thrown five interceptions in three games. Kaaya was pressed into service after the presumed starter, fifth-year senior Ryan Williams, tore his ACL in spring practice and backup Kevin Olsen was suspended for a violation of team rules. Olsen was arrested on DUI charges Monday and officially left the program Tuesday.
Papuchis said Kaaya looks seasoned for being so young.
“He doesn’t make a ton of mistakes, he doesn’t look nervous, he doesn’t look rattled in the pocket,” Papuchis said. “I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen so far.”
Keels said pressuring Kaaya is one way to get him rattled.
“We’re going to try to get after him early and we’re going to try to get after him fast,” Keels said.
Redemption for kicker Brown
After missing his first college field goal, Drew Brown got the chance at redemption Saturday night that he knows kickers don’t always immediately get.
Two chances, actually.
The Nebraska freshman pushed a 43-yard attempt to the right at Fresno State with 6:42 left in the first quarter. The Huskers then went back to him on two of their next four possessions.
Brown hit a 38-yard kick with 12:18 left in the second quarter and then a 22-yarder with 5:40 to go in the half.
“If you get that miss, you just got to put it behind you,” Brown said Tuesday. “I got another shot, luckily, and I was able to put it through. So it feels good to be able to go out there and be successful, so you’re not just looking back on a bad day the whole game.”
Brown won the NU place-kicking job in preseason practice over junior Mauro Bondi. The brother of former Husker kicker Kris Brown is 4 for 5 on field goals through three games.
Drew Brown said he understands the microscope he will always be kicking under, especially with the place-kicking success that Nebraska has come to expect over the years.
“There’s always going to be pressure out there for you to perform,” he said. “If you’re not getting the job done, then there’s guys behind you that are just as worthy to go out and get a shot.
“Everyone makes mistakes. No one’s perfect. But if you make a mistake, you have to go out that very next play and you’ve got to come through.”
Gregory getting back on track
Nebraska defensive end Randy Gregory said his knee held up fine Tuesday, when the junior went through his first strenuous activity since returning to the Husker lineup Saturday night.
“Good. I mean, just soreness,” he said. “But that’s expected. Other than that, everything was good.”
Gregory aggravated an old knee problem during Nebraska’s first defensive series of the season on Aug. 30. He eased back into action Saturday night, when the knee wasn’t so much a problem as not feeling well and dealing with some cramping.
Gregory was credited with three tackles and looked active against Fresno State, but fellow defensive end Joe Keels said the All-America candidate will only get better in coming weeks.
“Having Randy back at full attack, that’s going to help because teams are going to have to honor him and get us more one-on-ones across the board,” Keels said.
“I think people are going to be surprised. I think Randy was a little dehydrated last week, so people didn’t get the full effect. I think they should be nervous this week.”