They have heard the coach's mantra and now repeat it themselves often. Get 2 percent better every day. That's what John Parrella has told his Husker defensive linemen.

The position group with the first-year Nebraska assistant and only two players who have ever started more than one college football game remains the great mystery door to this season ahead.

What will be revealed when it's opened? No one outside the program walls is exactly sure. Maybe inside them, too.

Husker head coach Mike Riley lists those with a chance to rise. Senior defensive tackle Kevin Maurice, who has started one game, has "got to be that guy we really rely on," he said.

But it will take a full committee for Nebraska's defensive line to succeed.

Redshirt freshman twins Carlos and Khalil Davis are thought by most to have high-reaching talents, but neither has played a snap in a college game.

"They've got the greatest chance for upside as the season goes along," Riley said.

There is sophomore defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg, who Riley is "really excited and hopeful about" after coming back from a knee injury. Stoltenberg was getting his share of work with the top unit next to Maurice on the opening day of fall camp. The Gretna native is a house, 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, but played limited snaps in 2015 with two tackles to his name.

More help could come from sophomore Peyton Newell, as well as senior Logan Rath from Giltner. Riley said both have seen more chances this offseason and "kind of slid into that point of, 'Let’s go. Can I be that guy that earns 15 to 20 plays in a game?'"

Anyone like that who could rise up, the coach added, "just helps those people like Mick and like Kevin that could be the starters in there."

But nothing is set, as is clear by Riley's next line. "Or one of the Davises or both of the Davises. However that works out," he said. "I think, with that, I just mentioned six names and they are all viable."

At defensive end, starting experience returns in Ross Dzuris and Freedom Akinmoladun, who played in their first college games last year.

Who comes next?

Defensive coordinator Mark Banker said this summer junior A.J. Natter and sophomore Sedrick King are players the Huskers need to be able to count on. Fourth-year player Natter is the perfect illustration of someone long behind the scenes who could help ease concerns by stepping up.

He was the top-rated recruit out of Wisconsin, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, but he has three career tackles.

Banker said Natter has come "a long, long, long way" since dealing with a knee injury and struggling to find his footing. He enters this year full of positivity. "I'm going to go crazy. I'm going to have fun out there," Natter said this spring.

He's also confident the Husker defensive line is going to get pressure a year after finishing with 24 sacks, which ranked 78th nationally.

"We'll get the sacks this year," Natter assured.

Other young defensive ends to keep in mind are redshirt freshmen DaiShon Neal and Alex Davis, players Banker said will have to grow on the run.

He wants to use them in roles that will accent their positives.

The doubters about Nebraska's D-line don't seem to bother a senior such as Maurice.

"We're very hungry. Last year was kind of a culture shock to us, just having a new staff come in," Maurice said. "This year we're more comfortable with what we're doing and how to do it."

He liked the way defensive linemen have been "attacking each day" this summer.

It's necessary, especially considering Nebraska's defense a year ago gave up an average of 400.4 yards a game, which ranked 64th nationally, and 27.8 points a game, which ranked 75th.

And while the Huskers do bring back starters at six of the back seven positions, they're moving into this season minus four key defensive linemen who all left the program with one year of eligibility remaining (Maliek Collins, Vincent Valentine, Greg McMullen and Kevin Williams). Two of those, Collins and Valentine, are now earning paychecks in the NFL.

Still, Riley said he likes the group he has.

They'll have to grow during camp. They'll have to grow during the season. They'll have to play smart.

The veteran who has waited three years for a starting role sees no reason to lower expectations.

"I think we can be real great," Maurice said. "It starts with us up front, though. If we get to the quarterback, it will help the back end. If we play with our technique and assignment football, it will help our linebackers as well. I think we can be really good with the guys that we have."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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