LINCOLN — Nebraska defensive end Greg McMullen spent the offseason trying to lower his body fat, increase his muscle mass and get himself in the best shape of his life.
It first had to do with wanting to become a better player, but he also had an eye toward the Huskers’ delicate situation at his position — even before the knee injury to Randy Gregory.
The work with NU strength coach James Dobson was grueling. The dedication to a better nutrition plan was challenging.
But his energy and endurance last Saturday showed McMullen that it was all worth it.
“I was just actually talking to Dobson and I said, ‘Dobson, I played 75 snaps last week and I felt great,’ ” McMullen said. “I was hungry afterwards, but I felt great. He smiled and said, ‘Yeah, that’s why we do this extra conditioning. That’s why we do this extra work.’ ”
The 6-foot-3, 282-pounder from Akron, Ohio, never came off the field in the 31-24 win over McNeese State. Nor did defensive tackle Maliek Collins and five others in the back seven of the Husker defense.
It’s a nod to how far McMullen and Collins have come as sophomores — and the shortage of other ready bodies on the NU defensive line. But the lack of subbing might become something the Husker staff needs to address with at least 10 more games in the next 12 weeks.
“I’d like to have a better rotation in general across the defensive front,” NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
Gregory likely will return to the starting lineup at Fresno State, so Nebraska would have Jack Gangwish in a backup role at defensive end after he stockpiled some experience in the first two games. The junior from Wood River came off the field against McNeese State only when Marcus Newby replaced him on some pass-rushing downs.
While Collins was playing every snap at one defensive tackle spot against McNeese State, Vincent Valentine gave way to Kevin Maurice for only a few downs at the other. The Huskers are trying to return Kevin Williams to good health but lost Aaron Curry when the former starter decided last month to transfer.
NU head coach Bo Pelini said he didn’t think any of the defensive linemen looked gassed against McNeese State despite the workload, but added: “I thought we should have subbed a little bit more.”
McMullen said he isn’t worried about being taken out. It just has felt good to be back in full-time duty after redshirting in 2012 and working as a backup a year ago.
“It’s still young in the season,” he said. “When that time comes we’ll talk about it, but it’s just one of those things where I’ll just keep doing the necessary things to recover and keep my body right.”
As with McMullen, Collins was a No. 2 last season whose playing time would fluctuate from game to game. It was never more than 35 snaps in a game, though.
The 6-2, 300-pounder from Kansas City is further along physically now, but he said the big difference is mental: Last year, he said, he probably couldn’t have handled his current workload.
“I thought like I had to be fresh to do the best I could,” Collins said. “I didn’t know what I was capable of doing. It’s just doing it now.
“Just don’t think you’re tired. Don’t let it go into your head. Don’t be like, ‘Coach, I need a break.’ Don’t say that. Just go.”
Collins said he was never looking over to the sideline Saturday. Never wondering between series if he was due for a substitution.
“I just go until the game’s over,” he said.
Pelini said he would have liked to sub more at defensive end Saturday “because we didn’t play well enough.” The next players available would have been Joe Keels and A.J. Natter.
“I’m not afraid to play those guys,” he said.
But McNeese State ran only 28 first-half plays because the Cowboys’ 98-yard interception return led to the Nebraska offense being on the field for consecutive 10- and 12-play drives. As the game tightened in the second half, Papuchis stuck with some starters.
The week before, McMullen missed only one first-half play against Florida Atlantic, when he lost a shoe, before coming out in the fourth quarter of a 55-7 game.
“In the offseason,” he said, “my one goal was to lose weight, get faster, get stronger and be out there for however many plays it was going to be, whether it was 10 snaps, 50 snaps or 75 snaps.”
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