LINCOLN — For a half-hour Wednesday, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini conducted his annual signing day soiree in his usual fashion.
He emphasized the character of NU’s 26 signees — they also play some football — duly took note of the walk-ons and bemoaned the hell-in-a-handbasket that the recruiting business has become.
Pelini knows his grim, wary audience and plays it well. Half of Husker nation still thinks Tom Osborne recruited five-heart, two-star talent. Only Nebraskans, God bless us, take
the best class that Bo has signed — better than any of Frank Solich’s offerings and nearly equal to Bill Callahan’s best in 2007 — and turn it into an occasion to worry about dark clouds ahead.
But then, just as he was wrapping up, Pelini dropped a sound byte that will serve as the commentary of this class. It involved the six defensive linemen he signed for 2013 — five of them freshmen who won’t arrive until summer — and how many might play for a defense that sorely needs them in the wake of Chase Rome’s transfer and Thad Randle’s knee surgery.
“we’re going to fire our guns next year,” Pelini said. “I told every kid that I looked at recruiting: 45>Get your butt ready to play.’ Because that’s going to be our mindset. We’re going to try to get each one of these kids ready to play. And we’re going to try to use every ounce of depth we have.”
Saddle up, Randy Gregory. Lock in, Maliek Collins. Ditto, A.J. Natter, Kevin Maurice, Ernest Suttles, Dimarya Mixon. Though Nebraska signed terrific talent on offense — including two top running backs, a tight end who could dazzle and a quarterback whom NU coaches and recruiting analysts alike seem to love — the story of the 2013 class is those six guys. How fast can they get on the field? How fast can they make a difference? And, most important: How fast can they run?
“That’s the No. 1 thing that we looked at: We’re going to get faster. Speed,” said defensive coordinator John Papuchis.
“The one thing that’s been obvious to us over the last couple years is that we haven’t been as athletic or dynamic on the defensive line as we’d like to be. There’s a huge emphasis this year in terms of finding those athletic kids that give that dynamic to their play. Every single one of them has a chance to come in and play and give us something.”
Gregory, the 6-foot-6, 230-pound junior college transfer, is the obvious big-splash guy. But he’s not a finished product. Of the high school guys, Natter and Mixon are the two who have logged a lot of football on one side of the ball in a defined role. They’re solid, tough, glue guys.
But the intriguing pieces are the sleepers: Collins, Maurice and Suttles. All three had big “light bulb” senior seasons. All three have athleticism you can’t teach. All three have gamer personalities; they’re up for a scrap. Collins has strength, hunger and good footwork.
“Maliek Collins? I think the guy’s a stud,” Papuchis said. “I like the fact that he’s a wrestler ... it’s a one-on-one thing. You’re either going to whip that dude or not.”
But all three, if they’re going to play early and often, need Papuchis, Pelini and position coach Rick Kaczenski to coach them into it. For NU’s defensive line — and its class as a whole — to keep pace with the recruiting work of Ohio State and Michigan, the developmental process has to be fast, consistent and special. That’s a lot to ask of Kaczenski. But that’s where the Huskers are.
There are some exceptions. Linebackers Josh Banderas, Courtney Love and Marcus Newby possess instincts, savvy and strength. I-backs Adam Taylor and Terrell Newby will hit NU this summer with momentum. Johnny Stanton’s up for everything the Nebraska quarterback position can throw at him — the spotlight, the criticism, the pressure, the legacy.
Mostly, though, this is a big, talented class that has to grow faster than Pelini’s classes usually are required to do. Bo redshirted three of his four defensive line signees from the 2012 class. Vincent Valentine, Greg McMullen and Avery Moss — who received a medical redshirt — probably could have contributed more last year. But Pelini kept them under wraps.
“I made that decision a little bit too quick,” he said. “I’ve kicked myself for it. You live and learn.”
Cue the Big Ten title game, where Nebraska’s trying to survive with chicken wire, and failing in a 70-31 loss to Wisconsin.
This class can, in theory, save the Huskers from another collapse like that. This class will also look great walking off a bus. I love the potential. Nebraska’s coaches do, too.
But however hard Bo and Co. just worked to cobble this bunch together, they’ll have to double it on the practice field. Either that, or the Huskers live for a season with the growing pains. And at grim, wary, determined Nebraska, there is rarely time for growing pains.
Sam McKewon covers Husker football for the World-Herald News Service.