To Nebraska via Coffeyville Junior College via New Jersey, the road to Lincoln has been a long one, but as Donald DeFrand stated yesterday, once you are there, it's all worth it in the end.
What happens when you get there, that's the issue. All of that hard work, all of those gaudy high school and junior-college stats, it means nothing once you step on campus. Well, not exactly. Even at a significantly higher level than where he was just playing, the 22 sacks that Wali Muhammad posted just a year ago, that will probably follow him for the rest of his career.
It's already got people wondering what he can do at this level and he's wondering himself. "I'm looking forward to getting two-a-days out of the way." Muhammad stated. "Then, I am just going to do the best I can on the field, go harder every play I am in and just look to get as much playing time as I can."
Even the ridiculous sack-amount that people keep bringing up won't get Muhammad on the field any faster, but the aforementioned expectations because of that total have and will continue to have him answering questions about doing the same thing at the top collegiate level. "If I can get it done, I can get it done." Muhammad said of possibly repeating his sack total from Coffeyville. "We'll see the 30th when we get out on the field."
"But, 22 sacks? I hope so. I hope so."
Always when a player makes a transition to the next level, the biggest change isn't just the quality of the opponent, but the speed. That's common and Muhammad conceded that it was the most noticeable difference initially. "It's faster." Wali said of the Nebraska O-line in comparison to those he has faced before. "One of my keys is using my speed."
To be that prolific in nailing the QB behind the line of scrimmage, it's usually a combination of things that makes something like that happen. Speed, strength, tenacity, all of it is required to be that kind of force. For Muhammad, there wasn't any one thing he could put his finger on that equated to him being as successful as he was, but voiced a few thoughts on just some of the keys. "I don't know how they came." Wali said of his sack total. "Just getting off the ball fast, trying to learn the snap count on each team each week. Studying film, but getting off the ball fast, that's our motto."
Again and not to overstate it (perhaps it's too late), 22 sacks, that's a ton. You can't help but wonder, ponder or even anticipate what Muhammad can accomplish, even at a higher level. And playing at the RE spot, without taking a snap in an actual game, people are throwing around his potential, matching it up with names like Kelsay, Vanden Bosch and even Rucker and Wistrom.
That tradition while vaguely familiar to Muhammad before he arrived, it's a legacy he's become quite familiar with since he arrived on campus. "When I got here, I learned that this is the real deal." Wali said of being a rush end at Nebraska. "Rush ends have definitely come out of here, I know that."
Wali also knows that the number he wears, that of rush end who was just taken in the second round of the NFL draft, if there wasn't enough pressure, that's another straw on the camel's back, as they say. "I got the 57 on and that's Chris Kelsay's number." he said. "So, I know I have to do something with it."
Now, if Wali was a true freshman, that "something" might not be expected to be that significant despite the ridiculous sack total from a year before. He's not though. Coming from the Junior College ranks, Muhammad is assumed to have the maturity and experience needed to get out there and compete for a job right away.
Even with the incumbents, Benard Thomas and Trevor Johnson, Wali knows what the expectations are behind a junior college player coming in and he's not shy about what he wants to do from day one. "Those two guys are the starters right now." Wali said of Johnson and Thomas. "But, I will do everything I can to get in the mix or to get that starting spot."
Oh, and the expectations upon Muhammad aren't just based on his numbers, but there's also another connection that Muhammad unintentionally created that believe it or not, might offer up even grander expectations than what his sack total ever could.
You see, there was another player that came out of Coffeyville who coincidently enough was also from New Jersey and Muhammad has heard all about him from the time he said he was going to be a Husker. "They are always talking about him." Wali said of comments made about Mike Rozier. "They are like ‘yeah, both you guys are from Jersey, he's from south Jersey, you are from North Jersey, he's from Coffeyville and made All-American there and made All-American here', so I definitely have to live up to it."
It would seem that you could title Muhammad's immediate pre-Husker life "expectations" as his on the field performances and coincidental connections have sponsored some large and some almost ridiculous ones at that. It's a common fact that though as much as fans might expect and coaches might expect, great players demand more of themselves than anyone ever could.
Wali is staying realistic though. "I definitely hope it I can get it done here." Muhammad said of repeating his sack-total. "22 sacks would be great."
"12 sacks would be great in this conference."
By the way. If Wali did get his sack total of 22 in a single season, that would make him the second most prolific sacking machine in NCAA history, all divisions, the record (24) held by Russ Watson out of Worcester State. The current Division 1-A record for sacks is held by former Syracuse defensive end, Dwight Freeney, who tallied 17.5 sacks two years ago. As far as the conference goes, if he reached that mark, it would put him only half a sack behind the career sack total for Missouri's Justin Smith.
Steve Ryan can be reached at email@example.com or 402-730-5619