As David Santos remembers it, Connor Cook was rolling out and he was pursuing the Michigan State quarterback when Nebraska teammate Randy Gregory “blew right past me.”
Gregory, a defensive end, “took a good angle, had a full head of steam,” said Santos, a linebacker. “I already knew Randy was fast, but right then, it was like, ‘Whoa, this guy can move.’”
“This guy” is 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, it should be noted. He’s large as well as fast.
The week of the Huskers’ game at Purdue, Gregory received a lot of media attention because of his connection to the Boilermakers. He had committed to them out of high school but had changed his mind while attending Arizona Western Community College.
Since the Purdue game, however, he has received a lot of media attention because of what he’s been doing on the field. He leads the Big Ten with 8½ sacks and he’s among 18 candidates for the Hendricks Award, presented to the nation’s top collegiate defensive end.
Last year’s winner, South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney, is not on the list.
Gregory is running in fast company, you might say (if you lacked imagination). And though Nebraska lost to Michigan State on Saturday, it wasn’t for lack of effort on his part. He was credited with eight tackles, one sack and four quarterback hurries.
Gregory’s play has been such that Husker coach Bo Pelini was asked during his weekly news conference on Monday if Gregory, a sophomore, might be ready to move on to the NFL.
“Right now? No,” Pelini said.
In the future?
“He’s got a lot to learn right now. It’s the little things,” said Pelini. “He’s a really good pass rusher. (But) the details aren’t quite there with Randy. He’s got a lot to learn. That’s to be expected. He’s raw right now. But the potential is there. He’s going to be very good.”
Consider that before the news conference discussion of Gregory’s potential NFL future was over, and Pelini responded to a question about punt returns, former NFL players Charles Haley and Willie McGinest were mentioned – heady stuff.
McGinest played 15 NFL seasons and was credited with 86 sacks. Haley had 100½ sacks in 13 seasons and was included in the Dallas Cowboys’ Ring of Honor in 2011.
“He was, in my opinion, one of the best ever,” Pelini said.
Gregory is far from either, of course. Still, just to be in the conversation is significant.
“He reminds me of having the potential,” said Pelini. “A year in the weight room is going to be big in the off-season. To be able to combine the power and strength with the athleticism and the speed to come off the edge and the ‘wiggle’ that he has in the pass rush and explosiveness there, it’s a great combination. It’s why it’s such a priority at the NFL level.”
The main storylines this week have to do with how the Huskers will respond now that they’re out of contention for a return trip to the Big Ten championship game and, on the individual level, whether redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. can shake off the mistakes he made against Michigan State. But Gregory’s play was a positive footnote to the 41-28 loss.
“Randy brings just about anything you could ask for,” Santos said.
Opposing offenses have made him “a target,” said Santos, who also has settled in at WILL linebacker after beginning the season at MIKE. “So he takes pressure off some of us so we can get free on plays. He brings a lot to the defense, and we need him.”
Gregory is among the reasons the defense has improved.
“He’s got speed,” Santos said. “He’s very fast.”
Apparently, what Gregory doesn’t have is a proper nickname.
“We’re working on it right now,” said Santos. “He needs something. I heard ‘RG44’ but it’s not very good. We’re working on something for him.”
The “RG44” is a variation of “RG3,” the nickname of Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, and “RK3,” Husker teammate Ron Kellogg III. The “44” is Gregory’s jersey number.
Gregory wanted a single-digit number, such as the No. 7 freshman defensive tackle and roommate Maliek Collins wears. “I told him, really, I should have had No. 7,” Gregory said. “But he’s wearing it well. I’m wearing 44 well, so it’s all good.”
And it can get even better.
“We talk about controlling what you can control and that’s getting better every day,” said Pelini.
That’s how Gregory can find his way to the NFL.