- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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LINCOLN, Neb. -- Inconsistency on offense and problems with turnovers and in special teams masked the progress late last season of Nebraska’s young defensive linemen.
Check out these numbers: The Huskers allowed 4.54 yards per rush through eight games; in the final five games, it dropped to 2.63, fifth nationally over that time. In the first eight games, opponents produced 55 rushes of 10 yards or more against Nebraska, though just 11 in the last five games. Through eight games, 25.8 percent of rushing plays against the Huskers went for first downs; it was 15.5 percent in the final five.
Improvement among the interior linemen has continued this spring. The Huskers are off this week for spring break. Practice resumes on Monday, building to the April 12 Red-White game at Memorial Stadium.
“You’re just talking about a group across the board, end to end, who are way ahead of where they were, obviously, during the season last year,” coach Bo Pelini said. “I think they’re a lot more comfortable.”
The emergence, in particular, of Valentine, a 6-foot-3, 320-pound sophomore, and the 6-2, 300-pound Collins is evident in spring workouts.
And the presence of Maurice, who, like Collins, played last fall as a true freshman, plus juniors Curry and Kevin Williams eases concern about depth on the defensive line in 2014.
Yes, the Huskers are thin on the edge, with All-America candidate Randy Gregory in charge, but they ought to be stout in the middle.
Valentine progressed perhaps the most of any interior lineman last fall as a redshirt freshman out of Edwardsville, Ill. He collected eight tackles in the final two games of the regular season against Penn State and Iowa.
The strong finish boosted Valentine’s confidence, he said. This spring, he said, he’s working to develop into a big-play defender.
“There were a couple times I showed it out there on the field last year,” Valentine said.
He enjoys a healthy competition with the other linemen. Last week, they discussed in a meeting who would lead the Huskers in sacks next season. It seems Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten recognition last season for collecting 10 ½ sacks, should rank as a runaway favorite.
But Valentine won’t concede anything. Defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski encourages the competition, Valentine said.
“He wants us to have the mentality that we’re going to go out there and get the sack,” Valentine said.
Kaczenski, entering his third season at Nebraska after a five-year stint at Iowa, uses the success of former pupils to motivate the young Huskers.
According to Collins, Kaczenski constantly references his 2010 Iowa group in film study and in conversation. Adrian Clayborn earned All-America honors that season. Christian Ballard and Karl Klug also figured prominently in the Hawkeyes’ success up front.
“It’s just how they practiced and how they played,” Collins said.
Collins received praise from Pelini this spring. During the opening eight practice sessions, Nebraska shifted him along the line from tackle to end. The moves were made out of necessity as teammates missed practice time. Don’t expect Collins to play extensively at end in the fall, though if it’s required, Pelini said he wouldn’t hesitate.
“Maliek has great quickness and agility, change of direction for a big guy,” Pelini said. “And he’s got the power to go with it. He’s got all the tools.”
In some ways, Pelini said, Collins reminds him of a young Glenn Dorsey, whom the seventh-year Nebraska coached tutored at LSU. Dorsey, the 2007 Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, also won the Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, under Pelini.
“That’s high praise,” Pelini said, “but I think he’s got that kind of upside if he continues on his progress.”
Collins said he appreciates the compliment and that he’s aware of the gravity of Pelini’s words. Dorsey, a first-round NFL draft pick of the Chiefs in 2008, played in Kansas City for five seasons as Collins watched closely.
“That’s a dominant force, man,” Collins said. “It makes me want to keep working, to want to keep being coachable.”
Motivation runs high among the Nebraska defensive linemen, set to make an impact in 2014 that grabs attention regardless of happenings elsewhere on the field.