LINCOLN — First day of fall practice. No pads. Randy Gregory lines up at end on Nebraska's No. 2 defense.
He is a mystery man, even for Husker coaches. A junior-college transfer from the Arizona desert whom Nebraska didn't recruit until after he'd broken his leg. When Gregory showed up in Lincoln last October for an official visit, he weighed 219 pounds.
How the heck are you supposed to rush the passer at 219?
For six months after signing day, NU coaches didn't see him. Six months! They spoke over the phone and Gregory told coaches he was working out and eating well, but how many juco kids say the same thing and show up out of shape. After clearing a few academic hurdles, Gregory finally arrived in Lincoln the last week of July.
His weight: 254Ĺ.
So back to practice. Remember, coaches had never seen Gregory live. He lines up against Brett Qvale, the 6-foot-7 senior snowplow. Hut!
“Qvale wasn't even out of his stance and Randy was hitting the quarterback,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “I kind of looked at Bo and was like, 'Maybe we got something here.' ”
“He's just in the backfield like this,” defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said, snapping his fingers. “It's just scary.”
A month later, Gregory is no longer a mystery man. He's the explosive edge rusher Nebraska desperately needs. He has quick feet, long arms, a hunger to learn and just enough of a mean streak.
Saturday night, Gregory produced one of the best sack-less performances you'll ever see from a rusher. Time and again, he forced Allan Bridgford to throw one second before he was ready. In the fourth quarter, his pressure forced a Bridgford interception.
“That's the Randy I was waiting for people to see,” Husker tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “He came out tonight and put on a show.”
“I've never had a guy like that with as much natural ability,” said Kaczenski, who coached NFL first-round draft pick Adrian Clayborn at Iowa.
Nebraska's history of superstar pass rushers is overwhelming. But very few (Mike Rucker?) had Gregory's body type. He actually looks a little bit like, well, coaches prefer I not stir the hype.
The all-world defensive end at South Carolina is 6-6, 275. Even if Gregory is a poor man's Clowney, Nebraska will be thrilled.
Last September, desperate for pass rushers, Bo Pelini asked Kaczenski if he knew “this kid from Indiana.” Sure, Kaz said. He had tried to lure Gregory to Iowa out of high school. Kaczenski remembers calling Gregory, inviting him to Iowa City for the 2010 Penn State game. Didn't work out. Gregory signed with Purdue, passing on the Hawkeyes — and a mid-major basketball scholarship.
Then things got hairy. Academic troubles landed him at Arizona Western. He intended to sign again with Purdue after two years. But after showing his stuff in 2011, Gregory broke his leg the second week of the '12 season. Nebraska wanted him anyway, especially after learning he'd receive a medical redshirt.
Gregory didn't remember Kaczenski initially. But it's hard to ignore Nebraska. He committed after the Michigan game, then started eating. Not ice cream. Not McDonald's — oh, that was tough. He ate lean fish, drank a lot of milk and filled his stomach with protein shakes. He consumed 5,200 calories a day.
In late July, when Kaczenski walked into the training room and laid eyes on Gregory for the first time since January, he did a double take.
“He thought I was (285-pound) Greg McMullen,” Gregory said.
Kaczenski jokingly told James Dobson, the Huskers' strength and conditioning coach, to call Gregory's dad. Whatever Randy was doing, let's get everybody doing it.
Kaczenski starts giggling when he thinks of Gregory's potential — remember, he missed the entire 2012 juco season. Last year, Nebraska's best pass rusher was a bowling ball linebacker, Eric Martin. As good as he was, offensive tackles could bind him up, Kaczenski said. Gregory's arms are long enough, he can keep the blocker away.
He has a lot to learn — “he's never really played with his hand in the dirt,” Papuchis said. Nebraska can't just junk its four-man front and let him roam. At some point, he'll have to stop the run.
But for now, six weeks after he set foot on campus, he is filling a gaping hole in Nebraska's defense. Why worry about his deficiencies, Papuchis said.
“Let's just stand him up and let him wreak havoc.”
Recruiting failures are far more common than successes. But sometimes you get lucky. If Gregory had taken a college basketball scholarship, he wouldn't be here. If Kaczenski had courted him to Iowa, Gregory wouldn't be here. If Purdue coach Danny Hope hadn't been fired last fall, Gregory probably wouldn't be here.
But he is. And he kinda likes it.
“The main reason I came here was the stadium, the fans, the atmosphere,” Gregory said. “Every time I go out of the tunnel, it's an amazing feeling, something I can't really explain.”
He doesn't have to. The hits do the talking.
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Video: NU coach Bo Pelini after the Southern Miss game:
Video: NU's Taylor Martinez after the Southern Miss game:
Video: NU's Josh Banderas after the Southern Miss game:
Video: NU's Randy Gregory after the Southern Miss game: