LINCOLN, Neb. -- Flashing red lights don’t always accompany the moments that define a football season.
Last year at Nebraska, they did -- in the form of a BYU Hail Mary to ruin coach Mike Riley’s debut and a last-minute toppling of unbeaten Michigan State, followed by an impromptu party inside Memorial Stadium.
Often, though, the defining times occur within a more subtle context. Perhaps it’s a slow leak of confidence or an injury on the practice field or an awakening of young talent in the film or meeting rooms.
Or maybe, Saturday at Nebraska, it happened on an overcast morning in the middle of the offseason, when Greg McMullen addressed the Cornhuskers before their annual Red-White scrimmage, confirming fears that his leave of absence from spring practice would turn permanent. McMullen, a 13-game starter at defensive end last year pegged to move inside and anchor the defensive line in 2016, will graduate and skip his final year of eligibility to begin a career of working with youth.
Defensive tackle Kevin Williams, another senior, is leaving, too, to play elsewhere as a senior, Riley said Saturday at the conclusion of spring practice. So in the four months since the end of the regular season, the Huskers’ four most experienced defensive tackles -- including NFL draft early entrants Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine -- have departed with remaining eligibility.
Will it help define the Huskers in 2016? That’s to be determined in the months ahead.
The opportunity stands before the potential replacements on the defensive line to use this misfortune as an excuse to serve as the weak link on a team that cannot afford for a position group to struggle. Problems snowballed last year in the secondary as Nebraska allowed 290 passing yards per game. The porous pass defense played an inordinate role in the failures of a 5-7 regular season.
Of course, the chance also exists for this defense to galvanize behind its youth. A movement is underway already this spring at linebacker and in the secondary, where Dedrick Young and Aaron Williams, one year after joining the program as freshmen in the spring of 2015, are emerging leaders.
To enter this spring, the defensive line appeared a year away from turning over its talent. Not after Saturday, though.
“I think that should be an excuse to work hard,” senior linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey said of the unexpected losses up front.
Rose-Ivey said he’ll tell young players across the defense this summer to “go take somebody’s spot.” His message should resonate among the linemen, where redshirt freshmen Carlos Davis, twin brother Khalil Davis and Peyton Newell and sophomore Mick Stoltenberg suddenly all see an opportunity to start. Senior Kevin Maurice returns after playing in 20 games as a reserve the past two years, but the future is now for Nebraska’s youth on defense.
“It’s obviously not easy to lose four defensive tackles that all had eligibility to come back,” Riley said. “You can’t hide from that, but I’m going to look at it half-full. I’m really excited about the guys we have coming back.”
Riley first mentioned Maurice and Stoltenberg. Carlos and Khalil Davis were weight-room stars in the winter and flashed their ability in practice. On Saturday, before a crowd of 72,992, they appeared ready at moments. The Davis twins, in particular, got off blocks well and chased backup quarterback Ryker Fyfe from the pocket on a few occasions.
And at other times, the defensive front looked like a project for new line coach John Parrella. The ex-Husker defensive tackle may have to rely on all of his experience -- 12 years in the NFL, the building from scratch of a high school program and time at the junior college and Division II levels -- to coax steady play from a group this untested.
Rose-Ivey set Nebraska’s freshman record with 66 tackles in 2013 after a redshirt season. Young players, he said, tend to get content after they experience a taste of success. It stunts their growth. But the drive at Nebraska to succeed after last season, when the defense struggled to meet expectations, ought to carry the Huskers through this test.
“It shouldn’t be too far of a reach to find motivation around here,” Rose-Ivey said. “Just go upstairs and go through all the film.
“I look at it as a situation to maximize learning. It’s a challenge for older guys to be around a lot of young guys. They’re going to make mistakes. I’m a veteran, and I make mistakes. But I love it. I love the challenge.”
It's a challenge, one way or another, that may help define Nebraska next season.