A sense of accomplishment finds a person when sweat stings their eyes after a hard day’s work.
Greg McMullen seemed to feel it Wednesday as reporters gathered round. The Husker sophomore defensive end was exhausted … and it felt good.
“The grind is real,” he said.
That was only Day 3 of spring ball, mind you. But McMullen has clearly bought into the idea that there can be no off days, not even in March, not when you’re about to take on the role he will for this Nebraska football team in 2014.
As a redshirt freshman a year ago, he had a bit part in Nebraska’s defense, called on for snaps here and there, flashing his talent here and there, always just here and there.
Things have changed. He's now a lead actor in this drama.
Last year, he learned from veteran Jason Ankrah. Now Ankrah is gone and the 6-foot-3, 280-pound McMullen is one of the voices of wisdom, trying to help A.J. Natter and Joe Keels while furthering his own game.
“How Jason Ankrah was to me, I am to them,” he said. “They look up to me to help them with steps, technique, alignment. It’s an awesome feeling knowing that you’re one of the guys they look up to.”
McMullen played in 11 games last fall. He had 16 tackles, four for loss, and picked up a sack.
He was just scratching the surface of his potential, if you ask coach Bo Pelini. It is clear in his tone that he isn’t simply spewing coach-speak when he says: “He's playing at a really high level. I think he has a chance to become a great player.”
Confidence is a big reason for McMullen’s surge.
That was not always present last year as he made the adjustment from scout-team responsibilities to a player being counted on for game snaps.
He didn't trust his knowledge then. He does now.
“I know the system. I know what I’m doing. I don’t get down in my stance and think, ‘Oh, my gosh, what do I have to do? Am I doing this? Am I doing that?’” McMullen said. “It’s like, ‘Yes, I know what to do.’ I’m running on the field ready to go. I’m more confident and I’m excited. Last year when I didn’t really know too much, I was tentative, kind of scared, like, ‘Oh, my God, hope I don’t mess up.’”
The Akron, Ohio, native doesn’t cite a specific moment when those doubts disappeared. But he understands as well as anyone that there really is no option for him to become anything other than a difference-maker. That became especially evident after news came out that Avery Moss would not be part of the program this year.
Even with McMullen emerging as the end opposite the uber-talented Randy Gregory, there are some worries about the position, with Natter and Keels needing to develop at a fast pace to provide ample depth.
McMullen expresses confidence that both players will continue to progress and be ready to make plays come fall. But he’s also preparing himself to take on the workload of a player who rarely leaves the field.
“I understood why some of my snaps were down last year. I understood that. But now? I’m the guy,” he said. “I’m just going out there each and every day 100 percent, looking to get better, because we don’t have somebody behind me who can step up behind me like an Avery Moss or a Jason Ankrah.
"So I know when I’m feeling fatigued or tired, push through it. Make myself a better player. Because there’s nobody else. I can’t say, ‘Oh, Jason, you get in now.’ It’s me.”
Repeat: The grind is real.
That doesn’t stop McMullen from using the word “blessed” to describe how he feels as he takes on this challenge.
He signed on the dotted line for such a mission. He also knows all the attention on Gregory just might open opportunities for him.
“Having Randy over there is excellent because, obviously, when teams are playing against us, they’re going see him as the guy to look out for,” McMullen said. “So, obviously, if we bring our ‘A’ game, they’re going to be shocked and wowed that it’s not just Randy, it’s the whole D-line. … It’s a beautiful thing.”