Strong words from Nebraska coach Bo Pelini have clearly been received by redshirt freshman defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, who could be in line to start Saturday for the Huskers, defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
At Big Ten media days last month, Pelini specifically mentioned the 6-foot-3, 325-pound Valentine as a potential playmaker on defense, provided Valentine learned to push through adversity better. Papuchis — who's never talked about the comments with Valentine — said the player had a strong summer and training camp.
“He's more physically mature, he's in better shape, he's better prepared for what he has to do each and every day,” Papuchis said. “The thing that held Vincent back in the spring is that he wasn't in great shape. It's hard to get a good evaluation on a guy when he's sucking wind. He's in much better shape — and that's allowed him to be able to show he can play better.”
Defensive end Avery Moss — a roommate of Valentine's along with fellow redshirt freshmen Aaron Curry and Greg McMullen — said Pelini's comments actually gave Valentine “a confidence boost.”
“We need Vince right now,” Moss said. “I have complete faith he's going to be good.”
Moss is battling sophomore Randy Gregory for one starting defensive end job; senior Jason Ankrah is slated to start at the other end. Previously, defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said Moss and Gregory are likely to get pretty equal snaps.
“Every snap is a competition between me and Randy,” Moss said. “It's a good competition. I love having him here ... he's such a good athlete, so even if he didn't know what he was doing, he just springs to the ball. So it definitely put a little pep in my step.”
Papuchis said senior Thad Randle is also slated to start at defensive tackle. At safety, Papuchis said, look for juniors Corey Cooper and Harvey Jackson and senior Andrew Green to get the lion's share of the playing time, with sophomore Charles Jackson pushing for more time as he gets acclimated to the position.
“Charles is a talented kid, and if he keeps working, he'll make his way up the depth chart,” Papuchis said.
At linebacker, Papuchis said sophomore David Santos is the starting middle linebacker in NU's dime defense, which the Huskers could use extensively against Wyoming's spread offense. At dime, three players — senior Mo Seisay, junior Zaire Anderson and true freshman Nate Gerry — continue to vie for the spot.
Captains embracing role
Pelini said Tuesday that the opportunity to become captains has worked out well for Ciante Evans, Spencer Long, Taylor Martinez and Quincy Enunwa — as much as their leadership has helped the Huskers.
“They've really stepped into the role, I think,” Pelini said. “It's not only helped our football team but it's helped those guys individually, in their confidence, and encouraged them and really enabled them to really step up and embrace the role. I think that's been good for us.”
Enunwa, a senior receiver, said the “C” on his jersey reminds him every practice that “you have to hold yourself to a higher standard.” It's an obligation that he takes seriously.
“When they told me I was going to be a captain, I kind of took it upon myself to work harder, to pump my team up and to kind of guide the younger guys toward the right direction,” Enunwa said. “In the leadership role you've always got to be able to bring the guys along with you, and that's just being a great teammate in general.”
In the previous five years under Pelini, NU didn't name its permanent captains until after the season. Discussing the change of protocol Tuesday during the Big Ten teleconference, Pelini said he “thought it was the right time and right group and right football team to do that with.”
“And I like the way it's turned out,” he said.
Burtch growing as a receiver
Junior Jamal Turner witnessed the transformation of Sam Burtch firsthand, but even he sounds astonished recounting the walk-on's ascension into the receiver rotation.
“We were watching one-on-ones from my freshman year and he was like 140 pounds — literally,” Turner said. “Now, he's bigger than me. He runs great routes. He blocks hard on the perimeter.”
So expect to see Burtch against Wyoming on Saturday, Turner said.
In fact, at least to this point, Burtch is working as the fourth wide receiver in situations when Nebraska puts four wideouts on the field.
Turner did say that all the young players have gotten better, but the walk-on from Murdock, Neb., is apparently catching everyone's attention.
“His blocking is ridiculous,” Turner said. “How he approaches practice, the energy he brings. He's a really, really good wide receiver.”
Listen: Defensive coordinator John Papuchis discusses NU's preparations for the Wyoming game after Tuesday's practice: