Nebraska junior center Mark Pelini — yes, he’s the head coach’s nephew — is 6 feet tall on a good day. When he runs onto the field and hunkers down over the football, he’s seen the reaction from opposing defensive players when they realize he’s, well, vertically challenged for a Division I offensive lineman.
“Every once in a while, a guy will kind of look over at me, point and chuckle,” Pelini said.
The laughter doesn’t last very long.
Pelini has worked his way from a walk-on into the regular offensive line rotation. He went on scholarship this fall. It’s a long way from Youngstown, Ohio, to Lincoln, especially for a lightly recruited, undersized player like Mark Pelini.
After his senior year at Cardinal Mooney, he gave his highlight tape to his Uncle Bo, who said he would send it to coaches he knew at smaller schools.
“He popped the tape in, and he ended up saying, ‘I’ll send it to other schools for you,’ but then he told me about the whole walk-on program and everything here at Nebraska,” Mark Pelini said. “He told me if I wanted to walk on, that door was open.”
An accomplished student, Mark Pelini was considering Ivy League schools or West Point. But the opportunity to play at Nebraska intrigued him.
“I figured you only get to play college football one time,” he said. “I wanted to give it my best shot and play as big-time as I could.”
After two years on the scout team, Pelini got into seven games in 2012, and this year has been an integral part of the offense.
How does a player such as Pelini survive at the highest level of college football?
“He does lack a little bit of size and a little bit of lead (weight),” Nebraska offensive line coach John Garrison said, “but he makes up for it in other areas. He’s a very intelligent player who knows where he needs to be. He understands leverage and knows how to win.”
In fact, Garrison said he often asks Pelini about what he sees on film.
“A lot of times I’ll meet with the centers and go over our protections calls even before the rest of the line gets in the room,” Garrison said. “I can ask both Mark and Cole (Pensick) what they see on film. At times, they’ll catch things like a guy’s hand being down or a guy leaning this way or that way. Mentally, they’re both very involved in the game.”
Pelini, a math-history major who was Academic All-Big Ten in 2012 and wants to get his MBA, explained how he uses his intelligence to gain an edge on the field: “The more math you do, the more logically and analytically you can think. The most important thing about football is knowing what you don’t have to look at so you’re only looking at things you need to see.”
Your idea of the stereotypical dumb football player has just been blown.
“I think that Mark sees the big picture well,” Garrison said. “A lot of offensive linemen at this level have a hard time seeing beyond the trenches. Mark is able to see not only the linebacker level but he sees the secondary level. Usually the secondary is going to tell you what the defense is going to do because it has to cover up for the blitzes. Mark is able to see that and make our calls to get us in the right place. That’s why he’s successful for us.”
With all the injuries on the offensive line, a dependable player such as Pelini has become even more valuable.
“Prior to the injuries we had, he was anywhere from a 15- to a 25-play guy,” Garrison said. “So he was playing a little more than a quarter. Obviously, he’s had to step up a lot more here with all the injuries we have. I can count on him.”
And if the player across the line of scrimmage takes him lightly, it’s all the better for Pelini.
“Hopefully, they take a play off and I can take advantage of it,” he said. “The most important thing for me is watching a lot of film and knowing as much as I can. I try to use the mental side of the game to make up not being the biggest guy.”