LINCOLN — Nebraska is getting ready for an Iowa offensive line that features two seniors and a junior, five players who have started together all but one game this season and a unit that averages 6-foot-5, 300 pounds per man.
Just another week in the Big Ten, the way NU defensive tackle Vincent Valentine sees it.
“Growing up, I always watched the Big Ten and I always wondered how it would be playing out there,” said Valentine, a redshirt freshman from Edwardsville, Ill. “But this year has definitely opened my eyes. I've gotten used to playing in the Big Ten and just knowing it's going to be a battle every week.”
Valentine is one of several young Husker defensive tackles getting their baptism by fire at a position where teams are generally better off playing seasoned veterans, or at least those benefiting from more than one or no trips through offseason weight programs.
But that's the situation Nebraska has been dealing with as it heads into its regular-season finale Friday against the Hawkeyes.
“They're holding up pretty good,” NU defensive coordinator John Papuchis said Tuesday. “I think the fact that we have some depth there is good.”
But Papuchis said after the 23-20 overtime win at Penn State last Saturday that Nebraska can't change the fact that it remains so raw at the interior line positions, especially with fifth-year senior Thad Randle sitting out against the Nittany Lions. Then the reality is that there will be times when youth can “get pushed around a little.”
“I think there is a big difference between guys who have been through the weight program three and four years as opposed to like a Maliek Collins, who's really had one summer in a weight program and never had an offseason,” Papuchis said. “So I think as time goes on, just his physical strength is going to be much better, and there are quite a few guys in that category.”
Nebraska started Valentine and second-year sophomore Aaron Curry at defensive tackle against Penn State. Collins and Kevin Maurice have pulled backup duty as true freshmen.
Because of what happens inside, strength and toughness at defensive tackle are undeniable prerequisites.
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“When you look at some of the opposing O-lines we've gone against, some of the better ones have been veteran groups,” Papuchis said. “There is a difference between a 22-year-old who's been in a program for four or five years and an 18-year-old that's just showed up.”
The NU defensive tackles battled at Penn State, however, with Curry making four tackles (three unassisted) and Valentine and Collins each contributing three.
“Props to them, because they take a beating in there,” Husker defensive end Randy Gregory said. “But I know they're having fun and doing a good job. Keep their head up and they'll be fine.
“As time goes on, they'll get stronger and the technique and all that will come into place, and they'll be able to play even better.”
NU coach Bo Pelini said after the Penn State game that he was concerned how his defensive front would hold up against the Nittany Lions, who started three seniors on a mostly veteran offensive line. And those concerns were validated by PSU having some rushing success with tailback Zach Zwinak.
“I was glad to see our guys get better as the game went on,” Pelini said. “Our defensive line is getting better. That was a young group in there. It was a tough environment.”
The 6-foot-3, 325-pound Valentine has started five games this season. He has 15 tackles, including three for losses. Curry has started the last seven games.
And while Collins and Maurice are playing immediately — as Curry did a year ago — Valentine looks back on his redshirt season and realizes it was probably a blessing as he reshaped his body and got himself mentally ready for playing in the Big Ten.
“Part of me feels like I could have (played), but then part of me knows I needed the year to get ready for what I went through this year,” Valentine said.
“It's probably one of the hardest positions to play on the football field. All that banging and going against bigger and older guys than you, you get used to it after a few games. So I noticed myself getting better since the beginning of the year.”
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