Bo Pelini does not throw around comparisons to Ndamukong Suh lightly. So it was notable this week when the Nebraska head coach mentioned his former all-world defensive tackle in the same breath as sophomore defensive end Randy Gregory.
"I’m not throwing him into Suh’s category yet," Pelini said Monday, "but I think he can have that type of impact on our program down the line."
While Gregory still has room to grow, he's already having a major impact for the Cornhuskers, who host Michigan State in Saturday's crucial Legends Division showdown.
The 6-foot-6, 255-pounder has been Nebraska's top defensive playmaker and one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten. He leads the league in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (11.5) and turned in his biggest game during last week's 17-13 win at Michigan. Gregory had three sacks, including his chase-down of a scrambling Devin Gardner with a little more than a minute to play.
The obvious question, and one Big Ten schools must be asking themselves, is where did this guy come from?
Gregory was a modest recruit out of high school in Fishers, Ind. ESPN.com ranked him as only the 238th best defensive end in the Class of 2011. He committed to Purdue and had offers from schools like Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota, but few elite programs came calling on the skinny prospect who never made the summer camp circuit.
"The schools who did offer me saw my athleticism and potential," he said. "But I think everybody else just saw a scrawny, 190-pound kid that could do a few things but needed to hit the weight room a little more."
What they might not have known was Gregory's lifelong connection and passion with the sport.
His father, Kenneth, played linebacker and defensive line for Northwestern in the early 1980s. When Randy was six, his parents drove past a park at night where lights were shining on a pee wee football game. Randy begged his parents to play but found out he was a year too young to sign up. He cried the rest of the night.
Later, he'd star at running back and linebacker. His last two years of high school, Gregory played both defensive tackle and wide receiver. But he neglected his studies and failed to qualify academically.
So Gregory headed off to play junior college football at Arizona Western. From there, his reputation grew quickly.
"Some people might say that he blossomed," Kenneth Gregory said. "I think that the player you see today is really what he always has been. If I had to describe him, it's endless motor and highly disruptive."
Gregory showed that as a freshman at Arizona Western, registering ridiculous numbers: 82 tackles, nine sacks and 21 tackles for loss. He helped lead his team to the junior college national title game.
"We knew he was going to special when he got here." Arizona Western coach Tom Minnick said. "He was coming off blocks, exploding into guy and chasing kids down. He was running kids down from the backside and making plays that make you say, 'This guy's unbelievable.'"
Gregory was so dominant as a freshman that Minnick changed his defense the following winter to a 3-4 so he could move his top pass rusher into a variety of positions. But Gregory broke his ankle in the first game of 2012.
Looking back, Gregory calls the injury "a blessing in disguise." He moved back to his parents' home in Michigan for the spring semester, taking online courses and focusing on adding weight. He put on nearly 35 pounds by eating a diet heavy in salmon, flank steak and yogurt.
"We almost went bankrupt feeding him," Kenneth Gregory joked.
The injury also gave Gregory an extra year of eligibility for four-year schools and a chance to shore up his academics.
"Randy's a very, very smart kid," Minnick said. "He can write an 'A' paper in 40 minutes. But we always said he has to be challenged real quick, to get in four- and five-week classes. He gets bored, I think, with stuff after a while."
He remained committed to Purdue while taking other visits. But Gregory -- who grew up an Ohio State fan and always wanted to play in the Big Ten because of his dad -- was blown away by a trip to Nebraska last October, sitting in the stands when the Cornhuskers beat Michigan. When the Boilermakers fired coach Danny Hope a few weeks later, his decision was sealed.
"I was a really big fan of coach Hope," he said. "When he left, that made it really difficult for me to go there and play for a new coaching staff."
Gregory is still raw in a lot of ways, as you'd expect for someone who's played less than a year at the FBS level. But he makes up for that with his physical gifts and work ethic.
"A lot of people think of me as a real good pass rusher, and I think I am," Gregory said. "But if you sit in our meeting rooms or talk to [defensive line] coach [Rick] Kaczenski, he'll tell you I have a lot of things I need to work on. My instincts are pretty good, but as far as technique and things like that, I need to get a lot better."
He's pretty good right now, and his play is a big reason why Nebraska has turned things around defensively in the past six quarters -- the Huskers have allowed just one touchdown on their opponents' last 25 drives. Minnick compares Gregory to the New York Giants' Jason Pierre-Paul and predicts that "he'll be a top NFL draft pick when it's all said and done." Pelini said Gregory "has a chance to be a force in college football for the next couple years."
Maybe just like another former famous Husker.
"Any time you're mentioned in the same category with Suh, it’s a pretty big deal," Gregory said. "But I don’t want to just settle for that."