Can Keels Duplicate Gregory’s Success?
Nebraska's track record with junior college players under Bo Pelini is extraordinary. Ricky Henry was first team all-conference (and has hung on at the NFL level). Dejon Gomes was honorable mention all-conference and plays for the Detroit Lions. Brandon Kinnie got a look at the NFL level and left NU with the 11th most receptions in school history. Lavonte David won the Butkus-Fitzgerald award as the Big Ten's top linebacker and was all-conference in both seasons he played for the Huskers and was a first-team AP all-pro at linebacker for Tampa Bay this past year. Daimion Stafford became an all-conference safety and plays for the Tennessee Titans. Randy Gregory was a first-team all conference defensive end in just his first year and led the Big Ten in sacks. Given these successes, what might we expect from incoming defensive end Joe Keels?
Greg McMullen is probably the main competition for playing time at defensive end. He has an edge in terms of system experience and also is a stouter player as he weighs in at 6'3" and 285 lbs. Both Keels and McMullen were highly sought after recruits. Keels joined the team in January and so should have a greater opportunity to learn the defense than even Randy Gregory did a year ago.
Keels seems likely to get a lot of snaps, whether he's a starter or not. A.J. Natter is the only other scholarship defensive end on the roster that will participate in spring football. Teams tend to rotate two-deep in every game anyway, so Keels seems certain to have his chances to show his skills as a pass rusher. The Huskers can poach their depth at defensive tackle (where they have seven scholarship players that are at least sophomores) to get more help on the outside, but that's probably Plan B at this point. They could also throw a true freshman in the mix like Mick Stoltenberg or DeAndre Wills. Sedrick King seems awfully light at 225 lbs., so he'd really only be helpful coming off the edge in obvious passing situations.
The lack of depth at end would certainly invite the use of more 3-man fronts with either 3 or 4 linebackers. In any case, Keels is in prime position to be an impact newcomer. It will be up to him to make it happen on the field.