Since week 6 of the 2011 season, when Jared Crick was lost for the year due to injury, the Nebraska defensive line has been average at best. Due in part to the perpetual lack of contributions from current upperclassmen Walker Ashburn, Donovan Vestal, Jay Guy and Tobi Okuyemi, Nebraska has been razor thin at defensive tackle and have received minimal production from the defensive end spot. Those days look to soon be over, as the Huskers appear to have as much depth and potential on the defensive line as they have in several years. Not counting incoming freshman-to-be Ernest Suttles, who was subsequently dismissed from the team in June after a fight, Nebraska has signed 9 recruits in their last two classes to rebuild the line.
Nebraska's 2012 defensive line class showed its potential early. Defensive end Avery Moss (6-2, 270) and defensive tackle Aaron Curry (6-1, 280) both played as true freshman. Moss played in three of the first four games of the season, before suffering a shoulder injury and missing the remainder of the year. Moss was awarded a medical redshirt, giving him four remaining seasons of eligibility. Curry played in the first four games of the season before being hampered by injuries and not playing the remainder of the season. Before their injuries, Moss and Curry were on their way to productive seasons as valuable members of the Huskers defensive line rotation.
The other two players from the 2012 class redshirted. Coaches have raved about the potential of defensive tackle Vincent Valentine (6-3, 325). Valentine, who is physical and explosive at the point of attack, redshirted to work on his conditioning and technique. Pelini is hoping that Valentine, who chose the Huskers over Florida, can develop into the kind of tackle that collapses the pocket and occupies blockers allowing the linebackers behind him to make plays. Greg McMullen (6-3, 285), rated a four-star recruit by both Rivals and 247sports, gained nearly 30 pounds during his redshirt year. McMullen had a very good spring and received high praise from coaches. The Ohio native, who chose Nebraska over Ohio State and Notre Dame, has the most upside of any defensive lineman on the roster.
The five incoming defensive linemen from the 2013 class appear to have as much upside as their 2012 counterparts. Headlining the group is juco transfer Randy Gregory (6-6, 255). Gregory is regarded as the nation's No. 1 junior-college defensive end prospect and should immediately bring value as a pass rusher for Nebraska. Long and rangy, Gregory can play from a stand-up alignment as well as with his hand on the ground. Displaying very good first-step quickness, Gregory can be a handful coming off the edge. Although he missed the entire 2012 season because of a broken leg, Gregory is expected to be fully recovered and ready to roll this fall.
Along with Gregory, Nebraska brought in two High School defensive ends as well. Wisconsin standout A.J. Natter (6-5, 240) was regarded as a four-star prospect by Scout.com. Natter, like Gregory, is capable of playing out of a two-point or three-point stance. Natter has the frame to add bulk and move inside to tackle if the coaches desire. While showing the ability to rush the passer, Natter has shown tremendous potential against the run. He does a great job with his hands and takes on blockers well. Natter is a very good tackler who wraps up and drives through the ball carrier.
While Natter was one of the first commits to the 2013 class, Texas standout Dimarya Mixon (6-4, 250) was a late addition, committing just days before National Signing Day. Mixon is a stout run defender who shows good initial burst off the ball. Tough at the point of attack, Mixon has the ability to quickly get into blockers and constrict the pocket.
Nebraska signed two defensive tackles in 2013. Maliek Collins (6-2, 285) of Missouri was rated a four-star prospect by Scout.com. A standout wrestler, Collins has been singled out by Bo Pelini as an incoming player who has looked impressive early on. Explosive, physical and active in the trenches, Collins displays a great motor and the willingness to chase plays down. Collins, who is quick off the ball and plays with good pad level, should also provide a pass rushing threat. Collins is a very good looking prospect who will likely be in the tackle rotation as a freshman.
Kevin Maurice (6-3, 270) is regarded as one of the fastest-rising players in the state of Florida after earning first-team Class 8A all-state honors following a remarkable senior year. Possessing very good playing strength, Maurice was a disruptive force this past year for Freedom High in Orlando. Maurice needs to be more consistent in a few areas of his game, namely his hand usage. Despite the Huskers need for help on the interior, Maurice would benefit from a redshirt year while he adds some weight and works on his technique.
One player who showed great promise before a devastating knee injury sidetracked his development is redshirt sophomore Kevin Williams (6-2, 275). Williams continued to be hampered by his 2011 injury last season but appears to be completely healthy now. Coming out of high school, Williams was rated a four-star prospect by ESPN Scouts Inc. After enrolling early in January 2011, the Ohio native had a strong spring and was on track to play as a true freshman. Before his injury, Williams showed good quickness off the ball and the ability to get good penetration and be disruptive. Now completely healthy, Williams has a chance to be that player again. As a prep, Williams chose Nebraska over offers from Michigan, Oregon, Wisconsin and Michigan State, so his potential is no secret.
Husker coaches are counting on a couple of experienced seniors to help guide this group of youngsters. Defensive end Jason Ankrah (6-4, 265) has played in 36 games as a Husker with 18 starts. Ankrah was a consensus four-star recruit in 2009 and was widely considered to be the best player in the class. He has always shown the tools and the physical ability to be a dominant force off the edge, but Ankrah has been inconsistent throughout his career. Defensive Coordinator John Papuchis said that Ankrah had his best spring as a Husker. Nebraska needs him to finally deliver on his substantial upside, otherwise Greg McMullen appears ready to take his starting job away.
Fifth-year senior Thad Randle (6-1, 290) has battled knee injuries for most of his Husker career. Unless you count the 5 games Kevin Williams has played as a reserve, Randle is the only interior lineman with extensive experience on the roster. Randle, who has appeared in 31 games with 6 starts, sat out this spring so he could heal from offseason knee surgery. Coaches need Randle to be as healthy as possible this fall when his leadership and ability to stop the run will be vital to the teams success on defense.
Possible 2013 Depth Chart:
DE: Jason Ankrah (Sr.), Greg McMullen (RFr.)
DT: Thad Randle (Sr.), Kevin Williams (So.), Maliek Collins (Fr.)
DT: Vincent Valentine (RFr.), Aaron Curry (So.), Brodrick Nickens (Sr.)
DE: Randy Gregory (So.), Avery Moss (RFr.), A.J. Natter (Fr.)
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all football website N2FL.com. He served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on recruitment and talent analysis, including the NFL Draft. You can email him at N2FL@hotmail.com.