LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska’s roster officially lists Randy Gregory as a defensive end. It might be better just to call him a playmaker.
Every week the coach of the Cornhuskers’ opponent tells the media it will be crucial to keep track of Gregory. That’s been no small task against a player projected to be a first-round draft pick and whose game has been compared to that of last year’s No. 1 overall choice, Jadeveon Clowney.
The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Gregory has been a down lineman at left and right end, he’s blitzed as a linebacker, he’s lined up as a stand-up rush end on both sides, he’s dropped into pass coverage.
And he just might do something new Saturday night when the No. 19 Huskers (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) visit No. 10 Michigan State (3-1).
“I don’t think I’d put him at corner. Quarterback would be a little scary,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said, smiling. “We have to move him around and be creative with him. There’s a lot he can do because he’s athletic. He’s smart and he can process a lot of information.”
Gregory is back in top form after he tweaked an old knee injury in the season opener and had minor arthroscopic surgery Aug. 31. The 2013 Big Ten sack champion recorded two against Miami and 2.5 more last week against Illinois, and he thinks he can play even better. He said he’s working on being more explosive with his first two steps after the snap.
“I thought there were some plays I could have made a couple weeks ago and last week that I think I’ll be able to make now, hopefully,” he said. “We’ve got to pick it up. The stakes are even higher this week.”
Gregory played most of his snaps at left end against Miami and at right end against Illinois. It’s anyone’s guess where he’ll be against Michigan State, but if he stays on the right side, he would square off against one of the Big Ten’s best offensive tackles in Jack Conklin.
“It’s a night game with another great Big Ten team, especially for me going against a guy like Randy Gregory,” Conklin said. “It doesn’t get much better for me competition-wise.”
Opponents have tried a variety of tactics to control Gregory, who has 4.6-second speed in the 40-yard dash and has a 38-inch vertical jump. Assigning two men to block him has created space for linemates Greg McMullen, Vincent Valentine and Maliek Collins to make plays. Running backs have chip-blocked him, tight ends have been used in protection and quarterbacks have sprint out away from Gregory on pass plays.
Gregory said he can tell his movement frequently confuses offensive linemen and throws a wrench in their pass protection. On back-to-back series against Illinois, for example, Gregory shifted between linebacker and right end each play except when the Huskers were in a goal-line situation.
Both his sacks last week came from right end. He used a strong inside move to bust through a double-team for the first one. On the second, he slipped a blocker, lost his grip on Reilly O’Toole’s shoulder on a one-arm tackle attempt and doubled back to bring him down.
Against Miami Gregory was no factor at right end on the first defensive series. On the next one, he went from left end to right end to linebacker on three straight plays and then spent most of the rest of the game attacking from the left side.
For all the ways Gregory has been used, there probably are some different things that will be drawn up to give him a path to Spartans’ quarterback Connor Cook.
“I think we’ve got to throw more things at them, figure out different schemes we can throw at them,” Gregory said, “because over time they’re going to catch on to it.”
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