LINCOLN, Neb. – So when two NFL-caliber linemen leave after their junior year for the draft, another transfers to a different Big Ten team, and another quits football out of the blue, here’s what you’re left with on the Nebraska defensive line:
A Nebraska native yearning to become the next name remembered in the walk-on legacy, a sophomore who was recruited as a tight end out of high school, a former Nebraska high school standout battling back from a grueling injury, and a senior who, finally, after years of backup time, has a chance to prove something.
Meet the Nebraska defensive line. The motley crew of the 2016 Huskers.
Together, senior Ross Dzuris, sophomore Freedom Akinmoladun, sophomore Mick Stoltenberg and senior Kevin Maurice have 10 starts among them. As a group, they’re unproven. Untested.
And yet, Dzuris said after practice on Thursday, they’re ready to be great.
“I think we’re coming together quite a bit,” Dzuris said. “We’re a pretty close brotherhood just getting a little better each day. If we do that just a little bit each day of the season, we’ll be pretty scary by the end of the year.”
Putting together a defensive line to replace Vincent Valentine, Maliek Collins, Kevin Williams and Greg McMullen has been one of the main questions surrounding the Huskers this offseason and fall camp. But a week out from game day, defensive coordinator Mark Banker seems to have found a group that is melding together, and it starts with the two defensive ends, Dzuris and Akinmoladun.
Dzuris walked on in 2012 and didn’t play a down until last season. For two years he and his buddy, now-NFL lineman Jack Gangwish, battled it out on the scout team, which he says now is finally paying off.
“I came here expecting to play,” Dzuris said. “I knew it would take a lot of work, and obviously that hard work paid off.”
What makes this group work, Dzuris said, is the camaraderie.
Typically at Nebraska, there’s at least one standout in the trenches. A Randy Gregory or Ndamukong Suh or even a Maliek Collins.
But this year is different. It’s the competition between each other that makes their engine run.
“Every guy wants to start,” Dzuris said. “And if I’m slacking off that next guy could take my spot.”
The one player who gets more hype than the rest is Akinmoladun, who played in 11 games as a freshman last season.
Akinmoladun switched from tight end to defensive end while he redshirted and impressed coaches as a freshman last season. A knee injury took him out of two games, and while battling back into the rotation he didn’t record a single sack in Big Ten play.
But last year was last year, he said early on in fall camp.
“I really don’t reflect on last year, I look to the future for myself,” Akinmoladun said. “Last year, yeah, I did kind of fall off but I know this year is going to be a great year for me.”
Banker wouldn’t say on Thursday if he’s more comfortable with this group now than he was on Aug. 3. He’s never comfortable, he added, but he is confident.
Banker likes the consistency of Dzuris and Akinmoladun, and loves seeing Stoltenberg, back from knee injuries, out on the field. Behind them, he’s liked the growth of redshirt freshmen Carlos and Khalil Davis. As a group, Banker sees an improved pass rush and improved play in the two-minute drill.
“I really like the direction we’re all headed in,” Banker said. “And hopefully the fruits of their labor show up in the games.”
Chris Heady is a staff writer for Landof10 and covers Nebraska football and recruiting. He’s on Twitter @heady_chris.