LINCOLN — Greg McMullen grew up two hours from the Ohio State campus, where it was ingrained — or at least inferred — that you would like the Buckeyes and hate Michigan.
Living in the heart of Big Ten country also gave him his fill of Wisconsin and Michigan State and Purdue and Penn State and all the rest — as did the recruiting process before he picked Nebraska.
So the Huskers' start to the Big Ten schedule means something special to the defensive end now that the redshirt freshman is playing.
“I'm definitely excited,” McMullen said Monday. “Growing up you're watching all these teams, hearing about all these teams, and now you're a part of it. It's like a kid on Christmas.”
McMullen will be in the Huskers' rotation at defensive end as NU hosts Illinois on Saturday. The 6-foot-3 285-pounder got off to a respectable start in September with nine tackles in four games, including two for losses, along with a forced fumble and quarterback hurry.
The Big Ten will be the next challenge for one of the many youngsters on the Husker defensive front who is trying to break through, polish his game and maybe help solidify what's been a shaky defense so far.
“When it comes to technique and all that good stuff, that's what I need to push harder to become better at,” he said. “That's the stuff you've got to work at.”
McMullen already possessed the physical tools with the size, strength and speed that made him well known around Big Ten recruiting circles after being a four-year starter for Hoban High in Akron, Ohio.
Ohio State was among those that offered, but McMullen wasn't automatically going to stay home.
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“The more I got older and the more I started watching and the more I got recruited, you kind of get rid of that bias and you're just critiquing schools,” he said. “It wasn't, 'Oh, I'm from Ohio so I've got to go to Ohio State.' I was like, 'Hey, you know what, I'm going to branch out and explore a little bit.'
“I checked out schools in the Pac-12, I checked out schools in the SEC, in the Big Ten, even in the Big 12. I was just being a guy that was saying, 'Let's just see what's out there for me.' ”
It led him to Nebraska, where his career started with a redshirt season that McMullen knew was best for him.
He played with energy and abandon on the scout team, where his main job was mimicking the opposing defense that Nebraska would be playing that week. It just didn't give him the same time with NU assistant coach Rick Kaczenski that the regulars got.
“You're not really getting coached every day individually by your position coach, so whatever technique you have you just sort of have,” McMullen said. “But you also basically learn how to be tough and how to go fast. You're going against our No. 1 offense so you can't just play around.”
McMullen then welcomed the change in spring practice when the Huskers started the process of replacing three senior defensive ends and every little move started to be watched.
“When Coach Kaz started coaching me again, I knew I was making that step up the ladder,” he said.
McMullen said he'll still do things in practice that will make him shake his head when they're reviewed in position meetings. It just isn't as bad as it was a year ago.
“I'd watch film and I'd look at myself and I'd say, 'What am I doing?' ” he said. “So if I'm saying that, I know the coaches have got to be saying that.
“I just took that as a blessing and took that whole year to get developed. And now, when I get coached, I take the criticism of my game and use it to motivate me to work harder and get better and move on.”
McMullen said he's getting about 25 to 30 snaps a game right now as NU splits reps at the two defensive end spots among McMullen, Jason Ankrah, Randy Gregory and Avery Moss. It was pretty much spelled out to all of them before the season, he said, that each would get only what they deserved.
Gregory is emerging as a potential difference-maker, leaving McMullen and the rest to keep pace.
“I think I'm an OK player,” McMullen said. “I just know I'm far from being complete.”
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Video: Nebraska's Monday press conference