Over the course of head coach Bo Pelini's five seasons at Nebraska, it's taken a special type of player to see the field as a true or even redshirt freshman. That all could change in 2013, however.
With 26 new commits officially introduced to the program during National Signing Day on Wednesday, Pelini revealed a new outlook on managing incoming freshmen in their first seasons. Instead of being reluctant to put them in games because of their lack of experience and knowledge of the system, Pelini said he told members of the 2013 recruiting class to be ready to go from Day 1.
"I can't look into a crystal ball and I'm not sure, but we're going to fire our guns next year," Pelini said during his Signing Day press conference. "I told every kid that I met recruiting, I said, 'Get your butt ready to play.' That's going to be our mindset. We're going to try and get each one of these kids ready to play, and we're going to try and use every ounce of depth that we have. Like I said, our mindset is, like it always is, is to win them all, and there's a number of these young men I think can be a part of that."
Despite bringing in some highly touted high school talent the past few years, only a small handful has been able to make an immediate impact their freshman seasons. More often than not, Pelini relied more on veteran players the year went on, even if they weren't necessarily as physically skilled as their younger teammates.
This year, though, Pelini said he's taken on a new approach after realizing he probably would have been better off giving more underclassmen a chance to prove themselves on the field. That's why making that such a selling point to this latest batch of commits was an entirely different recruiting approach than what he's done in the past.
"I think we're in a point in the program right now where it's a little bit different," Pelini said. "I look back and I think the one mistake I did make is that I didn't play some of these kids more, that I did redshirt some of these kids. I made that decision I think maybe a little bit too quick, and I've kicked myself for it. You live and learn. Like I said, you think back and you evaluate, and sometimes you've got to learn from your mistakes too."
Just because he plans of being more willing to play freshmen right away doesn't mean that strategy is going to be a given by any means, though. Like always, Pelini said any player who is going to see the field on game day would have to have earned it in practice.
That's the one thing that did remain the same in his recruiting pitch as every other year before.
"I'm very, very consistent; we as a staff are very consistent from the day we meet a kid to the day that he graduates, and there's no kid who's been promised anything except an opportunity," Pelini said. "And we tell them, you're going to have to earn what you get, you're going to have compete. The best guys are going to play, and you're going to have to put it on film. If you can't put it on film, then you're not going to be out there. That starts the day we meet a kid, and that isn't going to change. Are we going to lose some kids? Maybe. But at the end of the day, what I'm going to concern myself with are the kids we walk onto the field with on August 31."
- Robin Washut
NU makes roster adjustments
While much of the talk surrounding signing day is filled with the optimism of new additions, Pelini addressed a couple players that will be leaving Nebraska.
He said running back Braylon Heard and defensive tackle Chase Rome have decided not to return to the team next season. Both will finish out the semester at NU and will count toward the school's scholarship limit until July.
When asked if he had completely closed the door on a possible return for Heard, Pelini said he hadn't.
"We've still got a couple of scholarships left if Braylon rethought things," Pelini said. "I think the world of Braylon. Right now, his mind is set in another place. I wish him luck."
That isn't the case with Rome, who already left the team once last season before rejoining the squad. Pelini said that he and the tackle sat down and agreed that it was "best that he go play at another program."
Rome's defection would have left NU short at defensive tackle for spring practice already, but Pelini also said Thad Randle won't be available after undergoing surgery to clean out his knee that bothered him all last season. He said the Huskers will look at moving some defensive ends to defensive tackle to compensate and make the line more athletic as a whole, but he's also very excited for Randle's eventual return.
"Thad Randle sucked it up all year and played hurt all year," Pelini said. "He's going to be 100 percent when he comes back. Let me tell you, that's going to be really good news. When he's healthy, he's a really good football player and we need him back at 100 percent and he will be. The surgery was successful. How he made it through the year just shows the toughness and what that guy has inside. He's a special guy."
- Dan Hoppen
New d-tackles could have immediate impacts
If there's an opportunity for an incoming freshman to come in and make an immediate impact from the first day of fall camp, it's without a doubt on the defensive line.
Not only is Nebraska now without Rome and also Randle for the spring, it also lost starters Baker Steinkuhler and end/tackle Cameron Meredith to graduation, leaving end Jason Ankrah as the lone returning regular starter.
That leaves the front four wide open for the six true freshman defensive linemen NU signed on Wednesday to compete for playing time, if not a starting job.
"You look at what we've done defensive line-wise: six guys this year and four guys the year before, that gives us 10 in the last two years," Pelini said. "They're guys that I think are going to make a big difference in our football team and how we play defensively. I'm excited about this group."
The six new defensive linemen include tackles Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice and ends Randy Gregory, Dimarya Mixon, A.J. Natter and Ernest Suttles.
How many of those does Pelini expect to play a role for the Huskers this season?
"Six, if they can," Pelini said. "I don't know. Time will tell. Every guy's going to be a little bit different. It depends on how they pick things up, how they work between now and August 31. There's a lot that has to be done. I think that all six guys have ability. They have the potential to contribute."
Defensive tackle was certainly one of the biggest position needs for Nebraska throughout the recruiting process, meaning Collins and Maurice could have as good of a shot as any of the freshmen to see the field right away.
Defensive coordinator John Papuchis said he was excited about what both players brought to the position.
"I think we went out and found some of the best defensive tackles we could find," Papuchis said. "I thought Kevin Maurice was kind of an under-the-radar guy who ended being a first-team (Class) 8A all-state player (in Florida). He may have been under the radar in terms of the recruiting world, but he wasn't under the radar in terms of how productive he was.
"Maliek Collins, I think the guy's a stud. I like the fact that he's a wrestler. That gives you some traits and qualities that are hard to teach. Obviously when you wrestle, it's a one-on-one thing. You're in the ring with somebody else, and either whip that dude or you're not. Maliek hasn't lost yet as far as know, so I like that type of competitiveness, and I think he's going to be a guy that's going to be able to come in and compete."
- Robin Washut
Securing strong offensive line class was key to staff
With a great portion of Nebraska's offensive linemen heading into their senior seasons, the staff knew it would be critical to add several linemen in this class.
They ended up with two JUCO transfers in Matt Finnin and Chongo Kondolo and three freshmen in Zach Hannon, Dwayne Johnson and David Knevel. Johnson and Kondolo both committed within a week of signing day, while Knevel enrolled early and has been on campus this semester.
"Both lines were critical for us," recruiting coordinator Ross Els said. "On the offensive line, we lose six in this next class. We needed to go overboard a little bit so we didn't have to sign six or maybe seven offensive linemen next year. I think that was hit hard and I'm really pleased that we got five quality guys out of that group.
"We got to a point where they kept saying yes. We didn't want to turn anyone away and we had scholarships remaining, so we said 'OK, let's go ahead and take these guys also.' It's a pretty good group."
The staff was very pleased with the mix of players that were brought in. The coaches wanted to bring in a few experienced players to potentially help right away while adding several younger bodies for depth and their ability to push the veterans.
"The whole staff did a great job of recruiting those guys and earmarked them," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "We were probably on them right after the break and went out to see them. We tried to get an older inside guy and an older outside guy to keep things alive in our room so we don't get stale. We have to keep creating competition so guys improve."
- Dan Hoppen
Early enrollees off to a strong start
While most of the 2013 class officially joined the program Wednesday, a trio of freshmen were already on campus.
Knevel, linebacker Courtney Love and defensive back D.J. Singleton enrolled early and have been taking classes already. Pelini said strength coach James Dobson has had nothing but great things to say about all three.
"That's not easy to start mid-year," Pelini said. "It's those three guys trying to go in and interact and find their way into a football team that all knows each other. But in our program, we've got a lot of good young men, kids who take these guys under their wing and are showing them the way. They fit right in and they haven't missed a beat."
The staff has been particularly impressed with Love, who at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds looks ready to possibly contribute right away. Love hails from Cardinal Mooney High in Youngstown, Ohio, the same high school Pelini graduated from. He racked up 110 tackles, 19 of which went for loss, and nine sacks last year.
"You look at a guy like Courtney Love and he's very physically developed," Pelini said. "He's kind of ahead of the game in terms of what he looks like and what he's capable of doing right now. He's still really being trained in a big-time program for the first time."
Knevel is on the other side of the spectrum. At 6-foot-9 and 300 pounds, Knevel looks the part already but is still adjusting to playing football. A native of Ontario, Canada, he played hockey instead of football until four years ago.
"David Knevel is a guy who was behind," Pelini said. "You ask him. He's being exposed to a lot of things for the first time, but he's come a long way in a short period of time. Every day is important for him."
- Dan Hoppen
Pelini likes new walk-on class
Nebraska has also secured the commitment of 15 players who have chosen to walk on for this coming season. Due to NCAA rules, NU was only able to announce 13 of those Wednesday, but Pelini expects all will be in play shortly.
The coach said it has become easier and easier to sell the idea of walking on to prospects as former walk-ons such as kickers Alex Henery and Brett Maher and current senior offensive guard Spencer Long have risen to prominence in recent seasons.
"I think our walk-on program speaks for itself. It sells itself," Pelini said. "Jeff Jamrog and the coaches and the group that is involved in recruiting the walk-ons do a heck of a job evaluating and figuring out who fits. We take the kids when it makes sense both ways. We feel really good about this group. The reality of it is a number of those kids will probably play for us and help us. That's been huge for our program since I've been here. It goes all the way back to Tom (Osborne), but I know since I've been here, the walk-on program has really helped us win a lot of football games."
The walk-on class includes a couple of legacy players as well. Walk-ons Dustin Glaser and Steve Greber are both the sons of former letter winners at Nebraska, as is linebacker Josh Banderas, who is on scholarship.
"The tradition in this program is, in my opinion, second to none," Pelini said. "When you recruit across the country and you recruit nationwide, the biggest challenge you have as a football program and as a coach is to get all those kids to buy into a certain culture and tradition that is different from any other place in the country. Let's face it - it's unique unto itself.
Having the walk-ons, the in-state kids, the families that have been through this and understand what this football program is all about makes that culture stronger faster. It's nice to have that representation in this class."
- Dan Hoppen
*** Beck said that quarterback Johnny Stanton has made great progress in rehabbing his injured knee.
"He'll be fine," Beck said. "He's very aggressive in his rehabilitation, he's working with some of the best doctors out in California, so I figure he'll be fine when he gets in."
***After Youngstown safety Marcus McWilson de-committed from Nebraska and signed with Kentucky, Pelini declined to pin the blame on old friend and former graduate assistant Vince Marrow, now the tight ends coach for the Wildcats.
"I don't if it was Marrow that went after McWilson," Pelini said. "I don't know how that quite happened, why it happened. Like I said, I got the kids in this class that I want."
***Despite only signing one Nebraska native in the 2013 class, Pelini said the state's 2014 class should offer a bit more talent to choose from.
"Generally speaking, (it's) pretty good," Pelini said. "There's going to be some evaluation that needs to go on - I'm not going to throw numbers out there, but probably deeper than it was this year."
***Papuchis said Tre'vell Dixon would likely start out at wide receiver, but the staff would leave it open to him if he ever wanted to move over to the defensive side of the ball.
"Most of the time the way we handle a guy like that is you let him come in and you see where he fits best, No. 1, and then what he wants to do," Papuchis said. "I think he wants to be a wideout, or that's what he's at least articulated at this point, and I'm sure that's probably the direction we'll go. But that's for him and for Bo to figure out. If he played on defense I'd be happy, but I know the offensive guys would love to have him too."