LINCOLN — Terrance Knighton thought he had everything figured out. Then everything changed.
The calendar had just flipped to 2006 and Nebraska’s defensive line coach was a 19-year-old D-lineman fresh off his first college football season at Temple. Knighton had started the finale at Navy and saw regular action all fall. He figured a larger role was coming for him, even if for a team that just finished 0-11.
Then, a coaching change. New Owls head coach Al Golden hired a journeyman assistant named Matt Rhule to work with the defensive line. With Rhule came a totally different environment, style and technique for Knighton to absorb.
The lineman and his 290-pound frame eventually came around.
“Just realizing the culture’s not going to change — the guy has to change,” Knighton said. “As a young kid I was stuck in my ways thinking I knew everything, doing things my way. The culture didn’t change and not being on the field hurt me the most.”
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Knighton has shared that story with Nebraska’s trench defenders this offseason as they endure what he did in Philadelphia all those years ago. He became a multi-year starter for a program on the rise and an eventual NFL draft pick. What about them?
The question remains one of the most important for the Huskers midway through fall camp and could define the debut of a new era in Lincoln. It’s been a full decade since NU finished even in the top half of the Big Ten in rushing yards allowed per carry. Nearly as long — outside the pandemic season — since it made more tackles for loss than it surrendered.
There are reasons why hitting those thresholds in 2023 is a big ask. Among Nebraska’s 13 scholarship defensive linemen, six are true freshmen. Of the rest, only two — Ty Robinson (23 career starts) and Nash Hutmacher (two career starts) — have begun games at the Power Five level. A junior-college transfer, converted tight end and lifelong outside linebacker could all well be regulars in the line rotation.
“Especially us in the D-line room, we’re playing really close attention to every single rep and treating them like they’re gold,” said Blaise Gunnerson, who is shifting from ‘backer to defensive end. “Because that’s what it is.”
The truth? The Huskers may not know if they’re prepared for life in the black-and-blue Big Ten until it hits them in the facemask. Just ask others who learned the pads-crunching hard way.
Forged in the fire
Pow! Keith Randolph quickly covered the microphone and glanced around at the other interviews happening near him on the Lucas Oil Stadium Field. That was louder than he meant it to be.
But also pretty accurate, the preseason All-America defensive lineman from Illinois said last month at Big Ten Media Days. The onomatopoeia aptly describes a freshman-year moment in camp when a bigger tight end blocked the former three-star prospect to the ground and left his head spinning.
Not until the following spring — when the extra weight and experience took hold — did Randolph feel like he belonged. The most memorable evidence came during one practice when he knocked the center and team captain onto his back.
“I was like, ‘Holy…I think I’m ready,’” Randolph said before his fall as an All-B1G third-teamer.
The rest of the half-dozen D-linemen representing their teams in Indianapolis last month told similar tales.
Emerging Ohio State star junior JT Tuimoloau was “thrown into the fire” during his first fall camp. It took him a year to learn how to work and take care of his body within the Big Ten meat grinder before a sophomore breakout. Penn State fifth-year senior Adisa Isaac didn’t start until his fourth season, when he became an all-league performer.
“The small things — the detail — is going to separate you,” Isaac said. “Experience or maturity or your football IQ. Certain things will separate you but it’s very small what really separates you and makes you a great Big Ten player.”
Randolph listed 10 required traits to hang in the toughest trenches around, among them grittiness and violence and footwork and anticipation. “You just gotta be a dog,” Michigan senior Kris Jenkins said. Watch a lot of film and be consistent, said Illinois standout Jer’Zhan Newton, a previous three-star who was a starter by his second season.
Rutgers junior Aaron Lewis — a lighter defensive end at 265 pounds who was even lighter out of high school — recalls once getting hit so hard in a game that he bounced off the field and back onto his feet. His advice: Be in the moment and don’t wish away time in those developmental windows.
“I don’t know if I’m ever ready to start in the Big Ten if I’m being honest,” said Lewis, who did it for 11 games last fall. “It’s a lot. It’s big people in the Big Ten. You gotta put that weight on, you gotta get that strength. You’re going to feel it. You’re going to feel you’re in the Big Ten when you go out there on the field.”
Randolph ends his story with a bit of encouragement for the young bulls. D-line life isn’t easy, but an unwavering attitude goes a long way. Sometimes all the way to the quarterback.
“They can do it,” Randolph said. “Just gotta have heart and be ready to go out there and fight every day. If I can do it, anybody can do it so just keep going, keep pushing. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. They got it.”
Coming of age
Ty Robinson corrected himself in midsentence. This is a good group of guys — not kids — that he’s working alongside.
The 305-pound veteran junior considers himself a “hardass” at times when his competitive juices are flowing and he’s reaching for an unattainable standard. But he’s also complimentary of his younger mates, from freshmen like Cam Lenhardt and Princewill Umanmielen to the “leaps and strides” Hutmacher has made.
Robinson is empathetic too. Back in 2019 he was a true freshman pressed into duty doing involuntary backward summersaults at the hands of grizzled Wisconsin offensive linemen.
“I’m playing against 22-year-olds that are 315 pounds and got full beards and I’m a 19-year-old kid,” Robinson recalled. “Definitely I kind of help them understand that from the get you’re going to have to throw yourself out there. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake because we’ll correct it.”
Nebraska will likely use a rotation of six to eight on the D-line, Rhule said. Among them could be third-year sophomore Ru’Quan Buckley (one game of experience), the fourth-year sophomore Gunnerson, Kai Wallin (juco transfer) and third-year sophomore AJ Rollins (moved from tight end in the spring). So too could Texas A&M transfer Elijah Jeudy, a former 2021 four-star prospect who saw 21 total snaps with his SEC club.
Other scholarship freshmen in the mix are Vincent Carroll-Jackson, Sua Lefotu, Jason Maciejczak and Riley Van Poppel.
Nebraska’s “jack” position — a blend of outside linebacker and edge rusher — supplements the line with marginal Power Five experience. MJ Sherman appeared in 39 games at Georgia, mostly on special teams. Chief Borders toed the field 16 times with Florida in a similar role. NU returner Jimari Butler has seen 14 contests as a reserve.
“It’s awesome how many questions, how much they want to learn,” Hutmacher said of the younger Husker defenders. “They’re not trying to do it their way – they’re all in. They want to do it the way we’re telling them to do it. It’s been a lot of fun working with those guys.”
An offseason of body reshaping through strength training and nutrition has brought out better collective mobility, players and coaches agree. Jeudy has dropped 20 pounds to 280. Big gainers include Gunnerson (250 to 2650 pounds), Rollins (220 to 245), Wallin (235 to 250) and Umanmielen (230 to 240).
The position group is close — rare is the meeting without an inside joke. It will be studied up and fresh when Minnesota lines up across the way in less than three weeks.
How will Nebraska’s D-line handle it? Only one way to find out.
“You never know really when it’s going to happen,” Hutmacher said. “Just one day it’s like, ‘Wow, something must have clicked for them.’ That’s how it is for a lot of the new guys coming in.”