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Husker Practice

Senior Brodrick Nickens was one of seven walk-ons to be given a scholarship heading into the 2013 season.

Brodrick Nickens possesses a clear recollection of his first practice as a Nebraska defensive lineman.

"Pretty chaotic," he said.

A 6-foot-5, 310-pound senior, Nickens spent his first four seasons in the program as an offensive lineman. Husker head coach Bo Pelini last spring asked him to move to defense.

So, yeah, pretty chaotic.

And yet, simplistic.

"The coaches pretty much just told me to line up and go forward," Nickens said this week. "The first practice last March, they didn't even tell me the plays. They just said, 'You're lining up over the guard, and just go. Just go straight ahead.'"

Nickens, a walk-on from Alliance, prides himself on being a blue-collar sort. He comes from that sort of family, he said. His dad works on the railroad. So did his grandfather, who also builds houses — a single-man crew. Nickens' mom was a school teacher.

It's no surprise that Nickens does what his coaches ask, with exceptional effort. He takes pride in his work. And his work is needed. Oh, how it is needed right now.

Thad Randle, an experienced but oft-injured senior, likely will be a starter at one of Nebraska's two interior defensive line positions. The other inside spot, however, is up for grabs.

Nickens is in the thick of the chase, despite the fact his last game on defense occurred at Alliance High School, where he actually starred as an offensive lineman.

Nickens almost certainly will play significant minutes this season, despite the fact he's appeared in only three games, period, during the past four seasons.

For Nebraska's defense, Nickens' quick rise to prominence is far from ideal. It's hard to imagine Nickens' story — a walk-on offensive lineman switching to defensive line as a senior and perhaps starting — unfolding at, say, Alabama. Or Ohio State.

The Huskers, though, obviously are short on experienced defensive linemen. Beside Nickens, contenders for the spot alongside Randle are sophomores Aaron Curry and Kevin Williams, redshirt freshman Vincent Valentine and true freshmen Maliek Collins and Kevin Maurice.

Nickens has some advantages: strength, maturity and, perhaps most important, a hunger to finally make his mark on gameday.

"The sands of Brodrick's hourglass, they're getting pretty thin," said Nebraska defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski. 

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So, Nickens operates with a sense of urgency. The coaches hope his attitude rubs off on the young linemen. He does more than what's required, coaches say. Even on his own time, he's apt to track down Kaczenski or Pelini or defensive coordinator John Papuchis to piece together knowledge any way he can.

No time to waste.

"He's going to have to play for us," Kaczenski said flatly.

Kaczenski expresses confidence in Nickens. He plays with a hard edge, and perhaps a bit of a chip on his shoulder, the coach said.

"He doesn't accept not doing well, and he's more concerned about letting his teammates down than letting himself down," Kaczenski said. "He's an unselfish guy. He brings a great demeanor. And he holds other guys accountable.

"It's great having guys like that because as a position coach, you can't be that guy all the time. There's nothing like peer pressure."

Nickens, based on his situation alone, should indeed command respect from younger linemen. He waited his turn for playing time. He kept fighting. He had ascended to No. 2 on the offensive depth chart behind right guard Spencer Long, an All-Big Ten player. Then, when asked, Nickens threw himself into his new role, and kept working.

"There's no end to working, right?" Nickens said. "Every Monday — whether I was starting or whatever — I'd just show up and go to work."

Tough not to cheer for that type of guy.

"A little blue-collar, western Nebraska," he said. "You do your work, and you have fun outside of work. But when it's work time, it's work time."

Make no mistake, he's making a challenging transition. He lines up daily against a veteran offensive line. As an offensive lineman, he became accustomed to "locking up" with defenders — grabbing hold and driving them wherever necessary.

As a defensive lineman, he tries to "evade" blockers. He tries to knock away their hands. He tries to avoid making the same mistake twice. Repeat offenders rankle Kaczenski.

Nickens' work ethic helps him avoid the repeat mistakes. What's more, Nickens is a stabilizing force for the young linemen, Kaczenski said.

"When he runs out in front of 91,000 fans a couple weeks from now, I don't think he's going to have a deer-in-the-headlights look," the coach said.

It might be a little chaotic, at least at first — reminiscent of those first few practices last spring.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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