It feels strange being the old guy in the room. They all say that come senior year. Thad Randle’s turn to say it came Monday.
“It’s crazy,” the Husker defensive tackle said. “Because, I remember my first day when I got here when I was surrounded by old guys. But it’s a blessing, being here so long, meeting all the people. I just love football. I love helping younger guys. It’s a good thing.”
Yes, it is a good thing, a good thing Randle’s around in a defensive line room full of youth.
He's sitting out this spring, recovering from knee surgery. But he might be as busy as if he had pads on.
“Basically just trying to be a coach,” Randle said.
He’s told the young players to not be afraid to ask questions.
Call him. Text him. He’ll answer.
“I think our young guys, they have a lot of heart,” Randle said. “Sometimes they just don’t believe in themselves but they just need to be coached up. When you haven’t played, you don’t really know what to expect, so you just have to help them keep their confidence up.”
He knew he’d sit out this spring when he was limping around the field last fall.
Randle, rather amazingly, played in 13 games last season with the bad knee, recording 21 tackles.
“It was hard, real hard,” Randle said. “When you’re playing with an injury, especially with your knee, as a D-lineman you need your legs. I just tried to give it my all. I knew some days I wasn’t going to feel the same. Some days I was going to feel good. It was just an uphill battle.”
Surgery awaited Randle when the season ended.
Doctors reconstructed the medial and posterior collateral ligaments. “A little bit of my meniscus," Randle said. "Stuff like that.”
Randle was bummed about it at first.
But he’s now seeing the benefits. It was a chance to not just coach the young guys but watch more tape of his own game and see where he thrived and where he came up short.
It’s his leadership with those freshmen and sophomores now that might be as important as anything.
Husker defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski did not mince words earlier in the week in saying his group — across the board, including the veterans — has a long way to go.
“We’re fortunate we don’t have to play anytime soon,” Kaczenski said after Monday's practice. “To me, it’s more the mental aspect, the toughness aspect. It’s not about assignments. It’s about not dealing with the adversity, blocking out the bad play, playing the next play, bowing up and saying enough’s enough and going from there. Just kind of getting some grit, getting a little bit more backbone to us.”
Kaczenski said it’s important his defensive line does not accept the excuse of being young.
But he acknowledges that this year is a different sort of challenge than he’s faced in past years, including his years as Iowa’s defensive line coach.
“Every year it seemed like we lost a couple guys and people were worried about who we were going to replace, and guys stepped up. We were making those jumps daily,” Kaczenski said. “But also, those guys were two or three years in the program. So it’s a little bit unique where we’re counting on so many young guys that haven’t been on campus a year, and other guys who haven’t been on campus yet.”
That’s why it helps to have Randle’s voice on the practice field, even if he isn’t in the trenches.
Aside from fellow senior Jason Ankrah, Randle is really the only player on the D-line with significant playing experience.
And so Randle has done his best to be dialed into practices, asking young players about assignments, alignments and different scenarios they might see.
“But he’s also on them when we’re not running to the football,” Kaczenski said. “He understands all that. He has a standard, too. He’s been around here long enough. He knows what’s accepted and what’s not acceptable. It’s nice having a guy who can provide some peer pressure so I’m not the only guy they’re hearing from on a snap-to-snap basis.”
Helping players such as Vincent Valentine, Aaron Curry, Avery Moss, Greg McMullen and Kevin Williams is critical as Nebraska tries to replace workhorses Baker Steinkuhler, Cameron Meredith and Eric Martin.
A player like Steinkuhler rarely came off the field last year. Most of these young linemen, though full of potential, are probably not ready to take on high snap counts like that this fall.
“I don’t know that we can use any of them as 50- to 60-rep-a-game guys,” said defensive coordinator John Papuchis. “I think we’re going to have to use them all a little bit. That’s going to mean they all have to come along. I think we’re going to be at that point over the course of the 30-odd practices we have left. I think we’re going to be a pretty deep group even though it’s a young group.”
That inexperience might be seen as a negative for now, but Kaczenski can also see the positives if some of the young players find the right answers.
“We’ve got the opportunity to be good for a long time, and you’ve got a bunch of the same guys playing together,” he said.
Randle knows he can do his part to be a bridge to those young players’ success.
He’ll be recovered and ready to join them on the field for fall camp. Until then, he'll continue to let his voice be heard.
“They’re going to be on the field with me,” Randle said. “I want them to know just as much as I do.”