BigRedReport.com is going to take a position-by-position look of what we learned about the Huskers from spring practices heading into the bulk of the offseason.
Nebraska might have an All-American potential type player at defensive end, but it doesn't mean the position wasn't a concern in the spring. The Huskers top two at the position are extremely talented, but the depth was at least something to talk about in March and April.
Randy Gregory returns from an All-Big Ten season and the spring was all about becoming a more complete defensive end and a leader upfront. As Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has said multiple times, Gregory has just scratched the level of potential. Turn on replays of last year and you will see a defensive end that's still pretty raw. A defensive end that used his athleticism to get to the quarterback, but sometimes struggled to stop the run - especially in the early part of the season. A lot of mock drafts the past week have projected Gregory to be a top ten pick. His work on being a more complete this spring will go a long way in helping that become a reality.
Opposite of Gregory this spring was Greg McMullen, a redshirt sophomore who made 11 appearances last year and recorded 16 tackles. McMullen might have been thrown into the lineup with the campus suspension of Avery Moss, but it doesn't mean it wouldn't have eventually happened anyway. It's BRR's thought his playing time would have increased this fall and he would have had a good shot of beating out Avery Moss this season for the starting spot. McMullen can't be classified as a pass rushing specialist or a run stopper. He's just an all-around defensive end who does many things well.
"I think he has a chance to be a great player," said Pelini.
Junior college transfer Joe Keels enrolled early to get a jump-start on the defensive system and was swimming early. Keels was mostly limited to second-team reps most of the spring, but did make some big strides over the final week of practices. He should be a guy who will contribute much like McMullen did last season – a player that can give the starters a series of rest. For anyone thinking Keels is the next Gregory, their expectations should be tempered.
Redshirt freshman Marcus Newby was already featured in our linebacker offseason report, but the former Maryland prep deserves some notice here after his spring. Newby is still likely a year away from contributing at linebacker, but did possibly find a role as a speed rusher at defensive end. This spring he showed offensive tackles had a hard time with his first step, but he's not big enough to do anything about it if they get a hand on him. Could BRR see him get a few sacks this year – yes. Do we think he will become a staple at the position – probably not.
Rounding out the depth is junior walk-on defensive end Jack Gangwish and redshirt freshman A.J. Natter. Gangwish got more second team reps than he probably anticipated this spring with Nebraska protecting Gregory at times and an injury to A.J. Natter, that sidelined the former four-star talent for much of the spring. Natter is likely already healthy after a minor knee surgery, but will need a big offseason to make up for lost time.
Joining the group in the fall will be freshman: Sedrick King (Plant, FL), DeAndre Wills (Lineville, AL), and Peyton Newell (Hiawatha, KS). Of the three freshman, Newell is the only player who could make an impact in year one. A projected defensive tackle down the road, Newell is likely to play on the outside to help with depth in 2014. We really feel it's a toss up whether he will redshirt in the fall, but recent trends show it's definitely possible he contributes.
*** Incoming freshman Mick Stoltenberg could play defensive end or offensive tackle, but is likely headed to a redshirt year.
*** Defensive tackle Maliek Collins got defensive end reps in the spring, but isn't projected by BRR to get many in the fall with Gregory not limited.
PROJECTED BRR FALL DEPTH CHART
1A.) Randy Gregory – junior
1B.) Greg McMullen – redshirt sophomore
2A.) Joe Keels – junior
2B.) A.J. Natter – redshirt freshman or Peyton Newell – true freshman