LINCOLN — Brodrick Nickens sees Nebraska defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski from the time he arrives at the NU football complex until Nickens — a tackle fighting for playing time — is among the last position group off the practice field, looking for a mandatory ice bath inside the Hawks Championship Center.
Kaczenski is always moving, Nickens said. There might be a few minutes in the football day when Nickens doesn't have Kaczenski right there, pushing him and teammates: When Nickens eats, and when he gets his ankles taped.
“It's intense,” Nickens said. “We're going at it. There's no lollygagging.”
Said senior tackle Thad Randle: “Coach Kaz has the most energy of anybody I've ever seen.”
The second-year line coach — charged with finding three new starters for a unit that was pummeled in the final two games of 2012 — still had it coming off the field. Kaczenski's voice rose with some questions, as if the collected reporters were among his pupils.
He talked of missed opportunities, of “leaving a lot on the table” from the spring game and using the first part of fall camp to atone for that and start the competition among a variety of players who, outside of end Jason Ankrah, don't have a full year's worth of starting experience. He relished the lack of “outside distractions.” No school. No vacations left to take.
The days are a blur now. Reps. Film. Food. Film. Reps. Competition. Newcomers making moves. Old-timers shaking off the rust from injury. A guy like Nickens — a walk-on from Alliance — switching from offensive line to tackle in his senior year. The grind of camp. Kaczenski nearly cracked a smile at the thought.
“It's all football,” Kaczenski said. “I think there's a lot of guys to talk about. I don't know how good we are, I don't know how bad we are. I can just say: I really like what we're getting out of these guys as far as effort. They're hustling.”
The hustlers include defensive end Randy Gregory, who for a second straight camp drew praise from coaches and teammates.
“He's a freak,” Randle said.
“Very productive over the first four days,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
Gregory — at 6-foot-6, 230 pounds — is NU's most highly regarded junior college recruit since Lavonte David, an All-Big Ten player for the Huskers. Papuchis said the motivation to get Gregory on the field and contributing is as high as it was with David. Papuchis didn't rule out Gregory working 1-on-1 with coach Bo Pelini if necessary.
Why such a rush?
“Because he's good,” Papuchis said. “The sense of urgency — in some respects — comes from us and in other respects, he was a very highly recruited guy. Outside of these walls, people are excited to see what he's all about. We're excited to see him, too.
“With Lavonte, it wasn't until the fifth or sixth game of the year where he was really comfortable with what we were doing. Granted, he was a Mike linebacker, with a lot more on his plate than Randy will have. So I'm hoping the learning curve isn't quite as steep for Randy.”
Papuchis — who coached the defensive line before Kaczenski's arrival from Iowa — said Randle, a 6-foot-1, 290-pound senior, has “been a leader and energetic” at one interior tackle spot. Behind Randle, Papuchis mentioned a large group — Nickens, redshirt freshmen Aaron Curry and Vincent Valentine, sophomore Kevin Williams and true freshmen Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice — as battling for playing time.
Collins, who returned from a family emergency Wednesday after missing one practice, is further along than most freshman linemen, Papuchis said.
“His toughness and desire,” Papuchis said when asked why Collins could contribute right away. “You got to be willing to put your face in there as a true freshman against some pretty good offensive linemen and not back down from the challenge. That's part of it.
“The second part is: He's extremely gifted athletically. His wrestling background helps him. He has a great power base. He's strong ... after four practices I've been impressed with where he is. But he still has a long way to go.”
Kaczenski called Collins “a tough, old dog” who needs a cleaner technique.
“It's not just running upfield,” Kaczenski said. “You got to know what the guy next to you is doing. That's for all freshmen. But he's a talented guy. We're glad he's here. I'd like to have about five more of him.”
At end, Ankrah's been sound and improving through camp, Kaczenski said. Gregory is there, as well. Redshirt freshmen Avery Moss and Greg McMullen are bigger anchor-type ends who fit well into NU's run defense.
Kaczenski said the larger goal for his unit is to dependably stop the run every game. That eluded the Huskers a year ago. Nebraska's two-gap scheme — which asks linemen to gum up running lanes and bounce backs to waiting linebackers and safeties waiting on the edges of the field — sometimes seemed daunting for the 2012 unit. The struggles continued into the spring game, where the Husker offensive line was able to punch holes open on basic power plays, even near the goal line.
“We think we've got a pretty dang good scheme,” Kaczenski said. “It's shown it's worked. There's some technical things that fall on me as a coach, but there's also some fundamental things (on players). It's a little bit of a give-and-take. Responsibility on both ends ... they've got to earn our trust. We've got to earn their trust.”
And, for Nickens, stay in the playbook. At least the modern version of one.
“My playbook's an iPad,” he said.
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