Freedom Akinmoladun will remind you this isn’t the first time he’s put his hand in the dirt on defense.
Starting from scratch, he isn’t.
In high school, in Grandview, Missouri, Akinmoladun excelled as a defensive end as a sophomore and junior before focusing on tight end his senior season. Of his 85 tackles in 2012, 15 were for loss, and four were sacks.
In fact, Grandview coach Andy Leech felt the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Akinmoladun had NFL-type potential at defensive end. He once told his prized pupil that his body and motor reminded the coach of former Missouri and San Francisco 49ers star Aldon Smith.
“Playing it before, it really does help, because I’m not at square one,” Akinmoladun said. “College level? Yes, I’d say I’m at square one, but basics, I wasn’t at square one.
"Coach (Hank) Hughes was able to mold me into what he wanted me to be, the style that he wants me to play.”
That’s not to say Akinmoladun’s transition from tight end to defensive end — one that came with a change in Nebraska’s coaching staff — hasn’t been overwhelming at times for the redshirt freshman.
Thanks to plenty of question-asking, film-watching and supportive teammates on the defensive line, though, Akinmoladun is gaining confidence.
“The front four, they took me under their wings and said, ‘All right, we’re in this together.’ They’ve been the biggest support,” Akinmoladun said.
Greg McMullen and Jack Gangwish have firmly established themselves as Nebraska’s starting defensive ends in fall camp. Gangwish replaces Randy Gregory, the NFL draft pick whom Akinmoladun faced in practice battles last season.
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“Yes. I did,” Akinmoladun said with a smile. “It was … an experience.”
Akinmoladun believes he can now learn from those matchups against Gregory, an explosive pass rusher when healthy and tuned-in, and translate it to his new position.
Defensive coordinator Mark Banker said Akinmoladun and walk-on Ross Dzuris of Plattsmouth continue to be the top backups at defensive end, and that Akinmoladun, in particular, “needs to keep coming with the details of the assignment.”
Coaches have no qualms with Akinmoladun’s work ethic, though. Hughes, the defensive line coach, said Akinmoladun can be found in the film room every day, perhaps more than anybody.
“All year-round he comes in on his own, sits down, watches film,” Hughes said. “He’s a smart guy, so he learns well.”
As for the 6-3, 250-pound Dzuris — to this point most noted for his handlebar mustache — he, too, studies the game and makes it known on the field, Hughes said.
“And he’s a good athlete,” Hughes said. “He’ll put up some decent testing numbers. It’s not like he doesn’t have athletic ability. He has good athletic ability. But he’s also a smart guy, so he doesn’t make a lot of the same mistakes.”
Not repeating errors is big with this coaching staff, one of the reasons Akinmoladun is heeding the coaches’ offseason advice of heavy film study.
“Over time, I know I’m going to get it. I know I’m going to click,” he said. “I just have to keep pursuing and keep working hard to make sure I have everything right.”