Big Ten: Kevin Maurice

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.

In particular, tackles Vincent Valentine, Maliek Collins, Kevin Maurice and Aaron Curry matured in 2013 as the air turned cool in November.

[+] EnlargeVincent Valentine
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesCornhuskers defensive tackle Vincent Valentine is working this spring to become a big-play defender.
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 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.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Departing receiver Quincy Enunwa, who often plays with the aggression of a defender, likes what he sees from the guys he practices with every day.

“I’m very excited about the defense,” Enunwa said.

[+] EnlargeIowa/Nebraska
Bruce Thorson/USA TODAY SportsCorey Cooper, Nebraska's leading tackler, will be back for the Cornhuskers' resurgent defense next season.
The TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl, Jan. 1 against Georgia in Jacksonville, Fla., marks the final chance for this defensive unit to display the improvement that has served as a highlight for the Huskers amid a rocky season. In December practices -- Nebraska returned to work last weekend -- the promise of a dominant defense next year ranks as a driving force.

Nebraska heads into the postseason ranked No. 36 in total defense, allowing 367 yards per game, and 37th in yards allowed per play at 5.22. In the same categories at the start of October, the Huskers sat 107th and 108th, respectively.

What happened?

“They’ve grown up a lot, matured,” senior defensive end Jason Ankrah said. “The maturity brought the confidence out of them.”

The turnaround started, according to Enunwa, after a team meeting that followed the slow defensive start.

“We told them that we knew what they can do,” Enunwa said, “and they responded. The past three, four games, they were leading the team. They were the ones who were picking us up.”

That should continue next season with the Huskers set to return their top five tacklers in 2014, led by safety Corey Cooper and linebacker David Santos. But Cooper, a senior next year, and the rising junior Santos are just two of many reasons for optimism on defense.

An overall infusion of youth and athleticism, which figures to continue next season, tops the list.

Start with defensive end Randy Gregory, who led the Big Ten with 9 sacks as a sophomore in his first season at Nebraska out of junior college. An offseason in Lincoln figures to turn Gregory from a first-team all-conference pick into an All-America caliber defender.

“He brings a kind of athleticism to the defense that we haven’t had here in a while,” Ankrah said.

But it’s more than Gregory that excites Enunwa and the Huskers.

Fellow bookend Avery Moss earned all-freshman honors in the Big Ten, as tabbed by ESPN.com, along with middle linebacker Michael Rose, who emerged as a leader in the second half of the season. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Vincent Valentine showed promise, as did freshman linebackers Josh Banderas, Nathan Gerry and Jared Afalava.

Speedy outside linebacker Zaire Anderson returns as a senior. Throw in Courtney Love, the defensive scout team MVP, and Marcus Newby, both of who redshirted, and you’ve got a deep and versatile group of linebackers.

Up front, Kevin Maurice and Maliek Collins played as true freshmen this year. Commitments from junior college tackle Terrell Clinkscales and end Joe Keels show that the Huskers aren’t slowing in their bid to stockpile man power.

“We have a lot of guys with a lot of great ability,” returning defensive back Josh Mitchell said. “We’re losing the most in the secondary, so that’s just a piece of the puzzle we’re going to fill in.

“But I think we’re going to be very explosive and very fast.”

Cooper and Mitchell, who has played multiple spots, return in the secondary in addition to part-time starting safety Harvey Jackson and promising underclassmen LeRoy Alexander and Charles Jackson.

The Huskers lose top cornerbacks Ciante Evans and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, easily the biggest shoes to fill. Both intercepted four passes this year.

Secondary coach Terry Joseph will likely shift a few bodies, and the Huskers could rely on redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph or little-used Auburn transfer Jonathan Rose to compete for time.

Regardless, the challenges look minimal in comparison to the hurdles cleared this year.

And this month -- and New Year’s Day -- should only help springboard the Cornhuskers into next season, Mitchell said.

“It’s going to give us a jump on next year,” he said. “Everyone’s going to remember their last couple practices. So whatever you learn now and whatever we can improve on now, it will carry over into the spring.”

SPONSORED HEADLINES