LINCOLN — It's usually Tuesday when sophomore center Mark Pelini stops by the Nebraska coaches' offices for an update on the offense's game plan.
He prefers to know the latest, even if the midweek tweaks to NU's strategy are relatively minor. No detail is insignificant, though, especially when you're a measured thinker like Pelini, who points to preparation as the catalyst for success.
The briefings aren't long, perhaps most notable because they reveal Pelini's commitment rather than drastically add to his already increasing football acumen. Pelini found offensive line coach Barney Cotton on Tuesday, and the NU assistant “drew four little things on the board for him” over the course of a few minutes.
This is what has defined Pelini's routine since, well, long before now — when circumstances have changed and the nephew of head coach Bo Pelini finds himself in a two-man competition to start for Nebraska in Saturday's Big Ten title game.
Mark Pelini spent nearly the entire season as a reserve, playing only in mop-up duty and splitting practice reps with junior Cole Pensick while senior Justin Jackson took all of the meaningful snaps. It was Pensick who stepped in at center for one play when Jackson injured his shoulder in the fourth quarter at Michigan State.
Yet Pelini, a walk-on, never quite had that backup's mentality.
“It's all about what you do every day, not just on Saturdays,” Pelini said.
He saw the hard work pay off at Iowa on Friday, when he finished Nebraska's 13-7 win in place of Jackson, who's now out for the season.
It's still unclear if Pelini will start against Wisconsin on Saturday. He's sharing time on the first-team offense with Pensick. Coaches have considered rotating both players into the lineup. Pensick said he's still practicing with the expectation that he'll contribute at left guard.
Pelini's not changing anything about his approach.
“I try to prepare every week as if I had to play the whole game,” he said. “So just do the same things I've been doing.”
Like, picking the coaches' brains. And watching lots and lots of film.
It used to be, in high school anyway, Pelini had it easy. “It was reach right, reach left or knock somebody off the ball,” Pelini said. “We ran about six plays (with) about three blocks.”
He's come a long way since then, always searching for any way to get an edge.
He's listed at 6-foot, 285 pounds — “not the biggest,” Pelini said.
But Pelini's picked up on certain nuances while working at the position since arriving at Nebraska in 2010 (he was third-string last year). He was a center for most of his high school career at Cardinal Mooney in Youngstown, Ohio. Pelini also played tennis before college, which is perhaps why Cotton regularly compliments his footwork.
Plus, teammates and coaches say he's smart. Pelini seriously considered Columbia, where his father, Vince, played linebacker. He also thought about the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
Pelini actually sent his high school film to Uncle Bo, who promised to pass along the highlights to coaching colleagues at smaller schools. Then Bo popped in the game tape. The other NU coaches did, too.
Next thing Mark knew, he had a walk-on offer. And he chose Nebraska.
“I was going to college to play football,” he said. “So I just wanted to go to the best place to play football.”
Pelini knew some might assume he was simply the beneficiary of family favoritism — but he didn't care what others thought. He said he's always believed he belongs at this level.
It's why Pelini fully committed himself to the offseason-long position battle at center. Not selfishly, but in hopes that his improvement would eventually help the team.
He, Pensick and Jackson were together almost every day during the summer. Quizzing each other on defensive looks, or breaking down their own plays. They practiced shotgun snaps — one posed as the quarterback and another lined up at defensive tackle while the third perfected the seemingly simple no-look, between-the-legs pass.
Now junior quarterback Taylor Martinez doesn't notice a difference between the three. Junior Jeremiah Sirles told reporters that he hardly said anything to Pelini on Friday because the transition was so seamless.
Both Pelini and Pensick have been taking first-team reps two years, even though those two have hardly played during a game.
One, maybe both, will be called on Saturday. If it's Pelini, he'll be ready — because he says he's always been ready.
“You just have to make sure that, week in and week out, you're doing as much as you can to prepare as if you were going to start,” Pelini said.
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