JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Nebraska's top defensive playmaker put to rest any lingering notion that he'd enter the NFL draft after the Gator Bowl.
Defensive end Randy Gregory said Friday he'd return for his junior year after recording 17 tackles for loss and 9 Ĺ sacks and earning first-team All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore. Most of the front seven returns for 2014, making it perhaps coach Bo Pelini's best front since 2009 or 2010.
“I'm so past that,” Gregory said of considering the draft. “I'm ready to come back. We got a lot of guys coming back. A lot of talent coming back. I want to be part of that.”
Listed at 6-foot-6, 255 pounds but likely playing at a much lower weight after a full season, Gregory said he wants to physically and mentally develop his game before leaving for the NFL. As for his weight, Gregory said he's ready for a full offseason in the Husker weight training program.
“I always feel like I'm little bit faster when I'm lighter, but I'm not as explosive,” Gregory said. “I don't know how you want it. Do you want to be fast? Do you want to be explosive? Just gotta find that (happy) medium. Find the right weight I can play at. We'll do that in the offseason.”
Pelini said Gregory “has only scratched the surface of what he's going to be.”
“Being able to go through an offseason program, the ceiling's high for that young man,” Pelini said. “He's a good football player. He's only going to get better with time.”
It's official: Martinez won't play
Senior quarterback Taylor Martinez has played his last game as a Husker.
Pelini ruled out Martinez for Wednesday's Gator Bowl against Georgia — the record-holding quarterback was in street clothes watching Friday's practice from the sideline.
The two-month-long break between games apparently wasn't enough time for Martinez's injured toes to heal. He hasn't suited up since NU's 34-23 loss at Minnesota on Oct. 26.
“It's a shame,” Pelini said. “But he's not where he needs to be, to be able to go out there and play the way he wants to play.”
Other ailing Huskers have recovered lately, though.
Pelini said the offensive line is the “healthiest we've been in a while.” Seniors Jeremiah Sirles, Brent Qvale and Cole Pensick all were banged up and had to miss game action late in the year. Junior Jake Cotton, too.
But they're much improved now. Same goes for offensive guard Mike Moudy, who's back after missing the final three games of the regular season with a shoulder injury. Pelini indicated that senior Andrew Rodriguez could play some at guard if Moudy can't go Wednesday.
Gurley means business
Given that Georgia running back Todd Gurley ran for 125 yards and a touchdown in last year's Capital One Bowl against Nebraska, the Huskers are naturally aware of what the 6-foot-1, 232-pounder can do, even if Gurley's been limited by injuries for much of the year.
But NU is also wary of how Georgia might use Gurley in the passing game. The Huskers expect the Bulldogs' pro-style offense to run screen plays for Gurley, who caught 30 passes for 344 yards and five touchdowns in nine games of action.
“They like to use him in the screen game,” NU safety Corey Cooper said. “That's a big part of what they do. I'm sure they're going to come to it with a young quarterback, so we have to be aware.”
Junior Hutson Mason is starting his second career game at Georgia in the wake of four-year starter Aaron Murray's knee injury suffered at the end of the Bulldogs' 11th game of the year. While Mason has been in the system for years — and coaches have expressed confidence in his skill set — a heavy dose of Gurley seems a likely option for Georgia coach Mark Richt.
Can Gurley handle it? He missed three games and parts of others with an ankle injury. Though his return from that injury bordered on spectacular — amassing 187 total yards and two touchdowns in a 23-20 win over Florida — Richt said Gurley is still not entirely healthy. Still not the guy who romped 75 yards on a toss play at Clemson to open his sophomore season.
“He's not where he was the first time he galloped down that field at Clemson,” Richt said. “You remember that look? I don't think he's there. I don't think he's 100 percent. But he's playing. He's doing good.”
Nebraska is using freshman running back Adam Taylor, who's redshirting this year, to emulate Gurley in practice. Taylor lacks Gurley's heft, but at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, he's roughly the same size, and defensive players said he's offered a good look to the first-team defense.
“He's given us a real good look,” NU defensive tackle Vincent Valentine said. “He's a big, powerful back. He brings his legs through every time and lowers his shoulder and finishes runs. And I feel like he's a good comparison to Gurley, who we're going to see.”
Said linebacker Michael Rose: “I think (Taylor is) really going to do some great things here at Nebraska. Runs hard. Deceptively elusive.”
And cornerback Josh Mitchell: “Usually when (Taylor) runs my way, I move.”
Nebraska has faced a variety of power backs this season with varying degrees of success. In Big Ten play, five backs rushed for more than 100 yards against the Huskers. Valentine said good tackling is key to slowing a bigger ball carrier.
“At the point of attack, you have to bring it even harder,” Valentine said. “He's not going to go down like a smaller back. So get in to his legs, wrap him up, make sure you get him to the ground. Even if you can't get him to the ground, hold him up.”
NU hopes to bring heat on Mason
The Huskers don't have a perfect scout team match for Mason, the 6-foot-3, 202-pound pro-style quarterback. For NU, both Johnny Stanton and Tyson Broekemeier took snaps with the scout team.
Mason hasn't played much behind Murray, but Mitchell said he was impressed by what he saw in Georgia's 41-34 double-overtime win over Georgia Tech.
“He has a really good arm,” Mitchell said. “And he's athletic, too. I don't think people give him credit for that. He can get out of the pocket. He can create for himself. And he throws the ball with pretty good timing, for not working with those receivers a whole lot on gamedays.”
Cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste said Mason had a few bouts of “panic” against Georgia Tech — Richt conceded as much Friday in Georgia's camp — but threw the ball well. Jean-Baptiste said he hopes to force Mason into errors.
Gregory said Nebraska must put pressure on Mason right away.
“We gotta get to him and let him know: It's not going to be an easy day,” Gregory said. “It'd make the game a lot easier for us.”
Kevin Maurice, a true freshman defensive tackle, worked at end in practice, the first time he's ever done so, likely in the absence of Avery Moss, who is back home in Arizona dealing with a personal issue. Maurice, an Orlando native, said he'd have nine family members at the game. ... Sophomore Charles Jackson, who moved to safety this past offseason, practiced mostly at cornerback during Friday's session. ... Nebraska's players fully expect to wear down their grass practice field at the University of North Florida. They joked about it a bit Friday. Divots and dirt patches were already visible after the practice ended. They have three more left. Said Valentine: “It brings me back to high school days.” The University of North Florida has a stadium next to NU's practice field, but it's for track.
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Video: NU's first practice in Florida
Video: NU coach Bo Pelini talks after practice
Video: Huskers take a dip in the ocean