LINCOLN – Greg McMullen is a defensive end, has been throughout his Husker career. He’s started the last 18 games over two seasons at the position.
But the 6-foot-3, 280-pound junior from Akron, Ohio, could move inside to tackle.
“He’s been taking inside reps since the beginning of time,” defensive tackle Maliek Collins said. “He’s never been (only) an end. He’s always practiced inside, just in case.”
“Just in case” means if injuries require it.
Mark Banker puts it differently.
“When you come down to it, football’s a pretty simple game and as opposed to putting a ‘tackle’ or an ‘end’ tag on somebody, or ‘nose’ (tackle) tag on somebody, you’re a ‘defensive lineman,’ first and foremost,” Nebraska’s defensive coordinator said – on Monday.
He also said what just about all the Husker assistants, as well as coach Mike Riley, have said at some point this season. If there’s an injury: “Whoever’s up next.”
So with tackles Kevin Williams and Kevin Maurice sidelined for sure on Saturday and Vincent Valentine coming off injury, McMullen could play inside, said Banker, “McMullen next to Maliek, with (Jack) Gangwish and Freedom (Akinmoladun) on the edge.”
Gangwish is still recovering from injury, though he played some at Illinois.
And remember, Banker made those comments on Monday. Since then, Akinmoladun, who has started the last four games and leads the team in sacks, has been sidelined.
His right knee was scoped and he’ll be out at least two weeks, Riley said on Thursday.
So perhaps the best way to describe the defensive line situation is “fluid.” The front four have changed on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
Consider Maurice, who stepped in with Valentine and Williams sidelined, and responded by making eight tackles against Illinois. Monday, he wore a boot for a stress fracture in a foot. “He couldn’t even tell me for sure when he did it; he didn’t know,” said Riley.
“It just bothered him after the game and then they looked at it.”
Things reached a point at which the coaches considered pulling the redshirt from freshman Carlos Davis, who began practicing with the top units a couple of weeks ago.
That would seem unlikely now.
“We’d like to save that year,” Riley said.
Redshirt freshman Mick Stoltenberg has seen limited action at tackle and junior Ross Dzuris is next man up at end, along with sophomore A.J. Natter and redshirt freshman Sedrick King.
Collins has been the constant. The junior from Kansas City, Mo., had his best game statistically against Illinois. He was involved in nine tackles and had 1.5 sacks, his first of the season.
“He had a big game,” said Hughes. But “sometimes when you’re just doing your job, you’re taking on double-teams and that kind of stuff, you’re not going to show up (statistically), where they’re throwing the ball . . . especially if it’s coming out quick or they’re running the ball on the perimeter.”
Illinois “ran the ball inside more, so those guys had a chance to make more plays inside, and they did make more plays,” Hughes said. “Those guys are good football players. I was really impressed with what Kevin Maurice did, and I was equally impressed with what Maliek did.”
But again, Maurice is out this week.
Collins definitely has had to deal with double-teams.
What percentage of the time, 50, 60?
“I don’t really know,” he said.
“Yeh, a lot, a lot,” said Collins.
His play against the Illini was, in part, a result of a “focus on being consistent, just working my technique,” he said. “To really do better that game, I went back and I watched a lot of my last year’s film, seeing just different things I was doing, where I was rushing the passer.”
“Just my sense of urgency,” Collins said.
Both Nebraska and Wisconsin need that sense of urgency because both opened Big Ten play with losses, Wisconsin at home to Iowa, 10-6. And then there’s the matter of last season’s game at Madison, in which Melvin Gordon rushed for 408 yards in a 59-24 Badgers’ victory.
That’s motivation, “most definitely,” said Collins.
In any case, whoever can play on Saturday afternoon will.
“We’ll roll guys in there, try to keep ‘em fresh, try to keep ‘em going,” Hughes said.