Everyone loves a freshman in the dog days of summer. Hope is the common commodity of football fans in August and nothing — not the muscles built during offseason workouts or the experience gained in the spring – personifies that sense more than new players.
Throughout his tenure, Bo Pelini has done his best to manage expectations for his young players. Newcomers aren’t allowed to talk to the media until they’ve appeared in a college game. Some programs don’t do it that way but it seems like a fairly basic courtesy for kids who are probably doing their own laundry for the first time in their lives. Save the scrutiny until there’s something to scrutinize.
But Pelini ventured beyond his typical “lot of potential, lot to learn” line on Tuesday. When asked directly which freshmen, if Nebraska had to play today, were in line for some snaps, Pelini offered a direct answer: defensive end Avery Moss, defensive tackle Aaron Curry, and running back Imani Cross.
It was a different answer in a year when almost everything is being billed as “different” at Nebraska.
“Since our bowl game last year we’ve done a lot of things out of the box.” That was Pelini’s opening comment to the hundreds of media members gathered for Big Ten media days in July. We’ll start to find out in a little less than a week how things have changed, but for now the emergence of a few immediate contributors is the first physical evidence.
What makes Curry, Cross, and Moss different? Size, mostly.
At 6-1, 225, Cross could be the most physically imposing player on the team right now. There was a moment after Tuesday’s practice – and Cross can be found getting in extra reps after the scheduled drills on almost any given day – where the freshman from Georgia walked off the field and a group of reporters’ heads turned to follow his progress. He was the pretty cheerleader walking through the cafeteria of a 1980s teen movie. “He’s only 18,” one of the reporters said.
That’s Cross. He’s big. He’s the prototypical “looks the part” player, which tells us almost nothing about what he can do as a football player. That said, and this still being August, Cross really looks the part and the coaches, the only people who have seen him practice at this level, feel he’s ready.
Moss and Curry are perhaps less eye-popping but are still physically advanced for freshmen. At 6-2, 260, Moss is two inches shorter than either of the starting ends, Cameron Meredith (260-pounds) and Jason Ankrah (265), but essentially the same weight. Curry is listed at 6-1, 280, which gives him a 15-pound advantage on redshirt freshman Kevin Williams and only five pounds light of presumed starter Chase Rome. Fellow freshman defensive tackle Vincent Valentine, another player who has gotten some camp buzz, is already the biggest player on the defensive line at 6-3, 320.
“They’re probably the most physically ready kids we’ve had since I’ve been here,” redshirt sophomore Rome said of Curry and Valentine.
But being physically ready is only part of the equation. There’s also the mental part, the part that will likely remain unknown until late into September. Which of those two challenges is larger?
“It would be hard to pick between one of those two,” Rome said. “Everything happens so much faster inside in college. It’s one of those things you have to have a pretty good grasp on coming in. It’s tough. It’s real tough.”
Curry has one big advantage when it comes to understanding the game. He played at prep powerhouse Fossil Ridge High School in Texas’s top division where year-round football and coaching staffs that top 20 members are the norm. That makes a difference Huskers’ defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said.
“(Curry) comes from a great program with great coaches. You’ve got those programs where every guy has a position coach so they’re able to hone in on their techniques a little more. They have great strength facilities. They have a strength coach. It’s run as close to a college program as possible.”
Moss has a similar pedigree. He played in the top-classification in Arizona at Tempe’s Corona del Sol High School. He had an individual position coach from his first practice as a freshman.
None of that can totally prepare any of the three players Pelini mentioned for their first college game, not to mention the rigors of the Big Ten. Excitement aside, it has always been and will always be a gamble. That part’s not different.
Nebraska played six true freshmen last season; Ameer Abdullah, Mauro Bondi, Aaron Green, Braylon Heard, Tyler Moore, and Jamal Turner. Abdullah had the biggest impact, due mostly to his stellar special teams play. Green transferred to TCU and Moore is on a well-publicized hiatus from football at the moment. Heard had 25 carries and flirted with becoming a defensive back in the offseason. Turner disappeared mid-season after a promising start and is willing to take the blame for that. Bondi, according to Pelini, is a redshirt candidate this year provided Brett Maher stays healthy.
The staff seems poised to make a wager on a few more young guys in 2012. The famous line from Shaw is that youth is wasted on the young.
There’s no time for that in college football. Once you make the bet, there’s no getting it back.