NCF Nation: Greg McMullen

 
LINCOLN, Neb. -- You’ve heard it all before about Nebraska, the program that wants more than any other in the country to reclaim a lost identity.

You’ve heard about how the Cornhuskers have not defeated a top-10 team on the road since 1997.

You’ve heard about how now is the moment, about how the chance sits front and center to make a statement.

Yet every time over the past decade-plus, that moment ended in disappointment -- against USC, Texas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, UCLA, even Michigan State last year in Lincoln.

[+] EnlargeAmeer Abdullah
Eric Francis/Getty ImagesAmeer Abdullah has three 200-yard rushing games this season.
When Nebraska beat the Badgers, Ohio State and Michigan in recent years, none was ranked higher than 20th. Georgia, last year in the Gator Bowl, was rated No. 23. The wins felt good, sure, but did little to distinguish Nebraska as a real contender.

Opportunity is here again as the Huskers visit No. 10 Michigan State on Saturday night (8 ET, ABC), one win from a 6-0 start for the first time since 2001. With a victory, Nebraska, barring a big upset, would go to Wisconsin on Nov. 15 at 9-0 as a legitimate player in the race for the College Football Playoff.

“We all understand what’s at stake,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.

The Huskers’ 5-0 start has been met nationally with a collective eye roll. There’s the mediocre competition, the ugly Big Ten reputation, the four-loss-a-year history of coach Bo Pelini and, well, this program’s penchant to fall flat in moments like the one before it on Saturday.

Theories abound in Nebraska on what makes it different this year. The Huskers on defense are solid up front. They’re committed to the running game. The leadership is improved.

Here’s what I know is different: At nearly every key moment on Saturday night in East Lansing, with apologies to the Big Ten’s top QB, Connor Cook, the best player on the field will be wearing a Nebraska uniform. That matters.

I-back Ameer Abdullah and defensive end Randy Gregory give the Huskers a chance. In Abdullah and Gregory, Nebraska has arguably the best offensive and defensive players in the Big Ten.

They demand attention from the Spartans. Both are extraordinary talents, though somewhat unintroduced to the nation, which doesn’t believe that it wants to invest again in Nebraska football.

They offer reason to believe. Abdullah and Gregory change games in ways not seen at Nebraska since Eric Crouch and Ndamukong Suh, one of whom won the Heisman Trophy and the other who came close as a defensive tackle.

Nebraska had a special talent in former quarterback Taylor Martinez. When healthy, he was just as electric as Abdullah. But Abdullah, a rare two-time captain, inspires hope among teammates like so few players.

And old coaching axiom says when a team’s best player is also its hardest working, you’ve got something special. That is Abdullah defined. He carried Nebraska to victory against Miami and thwarted a major upset against McNeese State with perhaps the most incredible individual effort in college football this season.

Abdullah leads the nation in rushing this fall with 833 yards through five games, on pace to break the career mark of Mike Rozier, long considered unattainable. Behind Abdullah, Nebraska has carved an identity for its offense: In the past two games, the Huskers have rushed the football 124 times, tops nationally, for 801 yards.

On Abdullah, Pelini cautions that it’s the beginning of October.

“I don’t know how it’s going to go,” the coach said, “but I can tell you one thing. Right now, he is playing at an extremely high level.”

Gregory is an even more unusual specimen. After missing the first two games with a knee injury, he eased into action at Fresno State on Sept. 6, then exploded with 4.5 sacks in the past two games.

But his impact far exceeds the numbers. Gregory baffled Illinois last week by lining up at multiple spots among the front seven.

“By moving him around,” fellow defensive end Greg McMullen said, “it only adds more attention.”

Offensive linemen search for him before every snap. Imagine the mindset of a quarterback.

“He’s a missile going through there,” Papuchis said. “He reads people. He reads it fast and hits it hard.”

At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, he runs more like a safety than a lineman. After Nate Gerry's third-quarter interception against Illinois, in fact, Gregory delivered a devastating block 20 yards down field of Illini receiver Malik Turner.

The Huskers will continue to use Gregory in creative ways.

Until Nebraska breaks through in a game like this, reasons exist to doubt it. Abdullah and Gregory offer hope that it ends differently this time.
LINCOLN, Neb. -- David Santos is what passes as a graybeard on Nebraska's defense these days.

Santos is a redshirt sophomore linebacker with one career start under his belt. Yet this spring, he was the guy many of the other Huskers linebackers were turning to for answers.

"It's kind of strange," he said. "This is only my second year, and a lot of guys helped me out last year. Now I guess I'm the veteran in the room. I don't feel old."

[+] EnlargeNebraska's David Santos
AP Photo/Nati HarnikNebraska linebacker David Santos had 10 tackles in his lone start last season, against Michigan.
Actual game-worn players are hard to find on that side of the ball, especially in the front seven. Senior defensive end Jason Ankrah is the only returnee with significant starting experience, as Big Red's defense will be massively green going into 2013.

So, even though Santos is still young and Ankrah is hardly a household name, both players are being asked to lead this spring and summer.

"It's been cool," Ankrah said. "I've always had somebody older than me be the vocal guy who takes control when things go wrong, and now I'm taking on that leadership. I've had some film sessions with [the other defensive linemen] one-on-one and a couple as a group. They'll ask me how to play a certain technique and other stuff."

Ankrah doesn't just want to lead with his words. The 6-foot-4, 265-pounder has shown glimpses of his ability, with six tackles for loss, a pair of sacks and two forced fumbles as a junior. He's eyeing the same kind of breakout senior season that Eric Martin had in 2012.

"I've been out there and I've been playing," he said. "Now, I want to be out there to make plays and change games."

Ankrah had to move down and play defensive tackle some last year as injuries hit the line. With a more set role this season and a little more freedom to get after opposing quarterbacks, he could flourish.

"Jason has played a lot of football for us the last three years, and there have been times when he's played really well," Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. "But he feels like there's so much more in his game, and he knows he hasn't reached his potential yet. We want him to go out and have that hunger to have a great year, and I think he's set himself up to have a pretty good senior year."

The Huskers have been expecting good things out of Santos, an athletic linebacker who recorded 10 tackles in his lone start last season against Michigan. He played mostly weakside linebacker last season, but spent the bulk of the spring at the middle spot, where he helped instruct the young players around him on where to lineup. An arm injury near the end of spring practice kept Santos out of the spring game, but he's expected to be back for summer workout.

"He's pretty good at taking command of the guys and at making the calls," Papuchis said. "He's a bit ahead in terms of development from the other guys, and that means we're going to put more responsibility on him."

That responsibility includes not only learning a new position and adjusting to a full-time starting role, but also leading everyone else.

"I can't get lackadaisical, because I want to get to the next level," he said. "But while I'm doing that, I've got to help the young guys little bit."

Santos should get a little help in the leadership department when redshirt junior Zaire Anderson gets healthy. With Anderson at the weakside spot and Santos in the middle, Papuchis likes the speed his linebackers have. Redshirt freshman Jared Afalava drew rave reviews for his spring performance, and could step in at the strongside spot.

The defensive line is more of a mystery, though Papuchis liked what he saw this spring out of guys like Greg McMullen, Avery Moss and Aaron Curry. He thinks Thad Randle can be a force inside if Randle can ever stay healthy, and highly touted junior college defensive end Randy Gregory is coming. The Nebraska defense showed during the spring game that it has a long way to go, but there is some athleticism to work with.

"The one thing about them is they can all run, and that makes up for some inexperience," Papuchis said. "If our guys play hard and they run to the ball and be physical, I think we'll be a pretty good defense."

And Santos and Ankrah will need to lead the way for the front seven.

SPONSORED HEADLINES