A few Nebraska football players have taken the opportunity to test the waters for a position change this spring under new head coach Matt Rhule. Redshirt sophomore AJ Rollins seems to be one of the first to settle into a new role.
The former tight end has been working as a defensive end recently, and he said at Thursday’s press conference that he’s been enjoying it.
“I just feel like I’m able to be myself on the defense,” Rollins said. “I’m having a lot of fun. And just going out, reacting to the ball. They don’t ask much of me right now. They just want me to continue to play like myself and just want me to play fast. So I’m having fun with it.”
Rollins said that he’s still willing to play tight end if asked, but his focus has now shifted to the defensive side. In his two seasons on the offensive side of the ball, he didn’t find his way onto the field much — playing in seven total games and not recording a stat. If the words of the coaching staff are any indication, he’ll have a chance to make an impact in his new spot.
His enjoyment of the role has been noticeable, too.
“That dudes a baller,” defensive coordinator Tony White said. “He’s doing what’s asked, he’s been over there for, I don’t know, maybe a week now, and all of a sudden he’s making plays, you’re seeing him constantly showing up around the ball which is really cool, really fun to watch, and then you see him with a smile on his face.”
Head coach Matt Rhule, who White praised for his observation skills, recommended the change. White said Rhule is constantly discussing the roster and where he sees different players making an impact.
Rollins trusted his coach’s knowledge when approached with the proposal. He played defense in high school at Creighton Prep, and believes he still has the “natural ability” to play on that side. Rollins said Nebraska was the only school to talk about the potential of him playing defense at all during his recruitment, and even then, it wasn’t much of a consideration when he got on campus.
He said that he’s retained the defensive fundamentals he learned from Creighton Prep defensive line coach Ted Hennings. The biggest challenge Rollins has faced is adjusting to the size of players he goes against, which is much different than what he faced in high school.
“The main thing is just it’s way more physical on the line in college level,” Rollins said. “In high school it’s not as physical. I could get away with super small stuff and just not playing hard sometimes. Here I have to play hard.”
The years at tight end working with Husker assistant coaches Sean Beckton and Bob Wager also have smoothed the transition, as tight end requires a player to be good with their hands at the line of scrimmage.
“My hands have been good, and that’s really helped me a lot because defense is really about hands at the defensive line,” Rollins said. “The better hands you have, I feel like the better you get off and better you can separate from blocks.”
Rollins’ enjoyment of his role is aided by White’s scheme. The player said it’s not about just eating blocks, but constantly moving and having the opportunity to make plays. He’s apparently been able to capitalize on those opportunities so far, and White is happy with how he’s done so.
“He’s pinching through there, making tackles for a loss,” White said. “With a smile on his face, that’s the best thing.”