McKewon: Three years after Randy Gregory, Huskers still trying to recruit a pass rush

Since talented defensive end Randy Gregory starred in 2013-14, Nebraska’s once-reliable pass rush has nearly disappeared after several seasons of recruiting misses. Gregory had 10.5 of his 17.5 sacks in 2013.

LINCOLN — He arrived just before fall camp — so close, in fact, that he didn’t participate in Nebraska fan day — after a spring and summer of living with his parents and drinking a lot of milk.

When he walked off the field after the Huskers’ first practice in 2013, I asked one of our photographers to snap a photo. I texted my boss and said something along the lines of, “This guy is a dude.”

Randy Gregory.

“I’ve never had a guy like that with as much natural ability,” then-defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said at the time. Gregory was like a puma. Long, quick first step, great acceleration, long strides. He frustrated former Husker tackle Alex Lewis so much one practice that Lewis had to take a break in the training room.

Gregory left three years ago.

He had 10-½ sacks in 2013, when he was healthy physically and in a good place mentally. His inconsistent second year, coupled with a battle with drug addiction since heading to the NFL, perhaps clouded your memory of Gregory’s impact on the defense. But in his two seasons, he had 17-½ sacks, and the 2013 team is the only NU squad to rank among the nation’s top 30 in sacks since the Huskers joined the Big Ten.

And since 2013?

Twenty-nine sacks in 2014, 24 in 2015, 26 in 2016 and an anemic 14 in 2017.

Nebraska’s ability to sack and pressure the quarterback has declined to the point of falling off the cliff. And there’s one key culprit.

Recruiting.

As Scott Frost finishes his first recruiting class at NU — a surprisingly good effort that seems destined to rank inside the nation’s top 25 — he and defensive coordinator Erik Chinander continue to hunt for one more pass rusher. Nebraska has a wish list — Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Caleb Tannor and Abba Baldonado, likely in that order — before signing day. The Huskers already have three defensive ends/outside linebackers for this class — David Alston of St. Paul, Minnesota; Tate Wildeman of Parker, Colorado; and Casey Rogers of Avon, Connecticut.

One, and maybe all three, could get a shot at playing early. The jobs are likely to be wide open.

None of Nebraska’s pass-rushing recruits have been hits since Gregory arrived on campus. Many have contributed little. A few never arrived.

Out of five recruiting classes between 2013 and 2017, Nebraska signed 20 edge rushers — players who could out of high school conceivably be considered defensive ends and/or 3-4 outside linebackers. This 20 charitably includes Carlos and Khalil Davis, who are each now north of 290 pounds but played end in high school, and Freedom Akinmoladun, who was signed to NU as a tight end but moved after one season to defensive end.

One of the 20 is Gregory. Who had 17-½ career sacks.

Those other 19 signees have combined, thus far, for 25 sacks. That’s 1.3 sacks per guy.

Of those 19, six actually have a sack: Akinmoladun (9-½), Carlos Davis (4-½), Marcus Newby (4), Ben Stille (3-½) Khalil Davis (2) and Alex Davis (1-½).

Five came and went (or never made it to fall camp) without notching a sack: Joe Keels, A.J. Natter, Dimarya Mixon, Ernest Suttles and DeAndre Wills.

That leaves eight more players signed in the 2013-17 classes. Of those eight, one — Guy Thomas, who redshirted last year — hasn’t played.

The rest — Peyton Newell, Sedrick King, Tyrin Ferguson, DaiShon Neal, Pernell Jefferson, Collin Miller and Quayshon Alexander — have zero sacks.

Outside linebacker Luke Gifford, recruited to Nebraska as a 200-pound safety, has 1-½. Ross Dzuris, a 2012 walk-on from Plattsmouth, had eight in his career. Jack Gangwish, a 2011 walk-on from Wood River, had two.

Heck, on the 2005 team, there was a 190-pound walk-on safety from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who had four sacks that season.

Blake Tiedtke. That guy had four sacks.

This isn’t to kick dirt on Nebraska’s ends and outside linebackers — though I definitely wanted Tiedtke in the official record — but to underline how hard it’s been for the Huskers to recruit, and sign, good pass rushers.

Even when Nebraska had all the momentum in the world to sign them.

The way we were

“We’ve really started to create a reputation. It’s night and day from two years ago. Not only the parents, but the (high school) coaches and everyone are so much more receptive. You know, toward the end of the season, we felt like we were back — that Nebraska football was back. It shows when you go on the road and there’s a genuine excitement when you show up.”

That was former Nebraska defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, less than a week before signing day 2010.

NU had posted the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense. Ndamukong Suh won several awards and was a finalist for the Heisman.

Plus, Nebraska had great pass rushers for three straight decades. That’s no lie.

Fans remember the elite pass rushers from the 1980s and 1990s — Jim Skow, Broderick Thomas, Neil Smith, Kenny Walker, Trev Alberts, Grant Wistrom, Jared Tomich and Mike Rucker were among them — but the tradition continued into the 2000s.

Kyle Vanden Bosch had 13 career sacks. Chris Kelsay had 13, including the 2002 Independence Bowl. Demorrio Williams had 12, including 11 in one season. Jay Moore had 12. Adam Carriker had 20-½. Barry Turner had 17. Pierre Allen had 13-½. Jared Crick had 20.

So after Suh, who had 24 sacks, the stock on the Huskers’ defensive line recruiting should have never been higher, and Nebraska remained in the hunt for five-star pass-rusher Owa Odighizuwa until signing day.

The Huskers put a ton of effort into landing the Portland, Oregon, star, but lost in the final hours to UCLA and Rick Neuheisel, who essentially pitched, according to a source who’d know, its location. What if football didn’t work out? Would you rather go to school at UCLA or Nebraska? Where would you rather live?

You know who Odighizuwa picked.

At the time, former coach Bo Pelini shrugged it off.

“You just move on to the next one,” Pelini said.

Also: “That’s his mistake. I try not to get stressed about those things.’’

And: “You don’t just win championships because you recruit four- and five-star athletes. It’s much deeper than that.”

On that last front, Pelini was right in multiple ways.

Winning games is more complex than recruiting four- and five-star players. Wisconsin, which hardly signs any of them, is proof of that.

But Pelini also didn’t win anything.

Further, at least as it pertained to pass rushers, he didn’t land any five-star players, and he only landed a few four-star players.

Gregory was one of those four-star prospects. According to the 247Sports composite service — a consensus rating that averages multiple recruiting sites — he was also the highest-rated of any of Nebraska’s pass-rushing signees since 2010.

Out of 28 defensive end/outside linebacker signees, Nebraska signed five four-stars.

The second-highest-rated signee was 2012’s Greg McMullen, who had nine sacks in three seasons before retiring to focus on mentoring youth. Outside linebacker Jared Afalava bounced out of the program after a few years at NU (and public criticism from Pelini in front of reporters). Newby finished with four career sacks. Natter didn’t post a sack in his career.

The other 23? Three stars. You already know the story of the 2013-2017 recruiting classes. It wasn’t much better before that.

The three 2010 signees — ends Donovan Vestal, Tobi Okuyemi and Walker Ashburn — had zero sacks. The two 2011 signees — end Joseph Carter and end/outside linebacker Max Pirman — combined for one career sack. The two 2012 signees — McMullen and Avery Moss — combined for 13-½. Moss played one full season before he was suspended from campus after charges of indecent exposure and eventually banned after violating the terms of his suspension.

McMullen left the sport.

That is seven players producing 14-½ career sacks.

Odighizuwa produced 12-½ by himself at UCLA.

Nebraska’s success with high-end pass rushers has been limited. To be generous, we’re including Newby and Afalava, but both came to NU as linebackers.

A glance at the Rivals.com database of Nebraska official visits reveals three recent five-star pass rushers: Odighizuwa, Jonathan Bullard in 2011 and Micah Parsons last fall.

Ohio State has signed three five-stars — either at defensive end or outside linebacker — in the last two recruiting cycles alone.

Of course, at some point, it makes a difference on the field. Ohio State finished its season against three pro-style offenses, demolishing each. OSU sacked Michigan five times, Wisconsin three times and USC eight times. The Buckeyes gave up, in succession, 100, 60 and 57 rushing yards in those games.

Nebraska, against similar attacks, frequently withered.

Yes, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s scheme played its part. Diaco was cautious to the extreme unless the opponent was so overmatched, like Illinois, that he felt like he could cut loose.

But Mark Banker, Diaco’s predecessor, was an aggressive defensive coordinator. He wanted to blitz and have ends screaming off the edge toward the quarterback.

His best pass-rusher was Dzuris, a lunch-pail type who didn’t play in his first three seasons at Nebraska before Banker and defensive line coaches Hank Hughes and John Parrella realized that Dzuris was, well, better than everyone on the roster. That’s a credit to Dzuris, but also a message about the Huskers’ overall prowess in the pass-rushing department.

Gregory isn’t coming back through that door. Nebraska needs to find his successor.

It’s already been three seasons.

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