Defensive line coach Tony Tuioti was already facing a big challenge heading into the spring as he had to replace all three starters up front. Losing spring practices will make the task of getting the defensive line ready to go for 2020 even more difficult.
That’s where Ben Stille comes in.
The 6-foot-5, 295-pound defensive end make have come off the bench most of last season, but he was essentially a fourth starter for Tuioti. The redshirt senior-to-be has played in 33 games during his Husker career with 14 starts, and now he’s the clear leader in that room.
"It goes fast for sure,” Stille said about his journey to this point on the first day of spring ball. “Seems like I was just a freshman. I definitely feel a lot of responsibility to bring a lot of those young guys along. We are pretty young in general as far as playing time goes so just being able to bring those guys along. I think that will be my biggest responsibility.”
Tuioti said Stille has really embraced that leadership role at a position that includes six scholarship underclassmen and four juniors with minimal to no playing time.
“He’s done a great job in the offseason, meeting with the guys individually, going through the installs, trying to coach the young guys up,” Tuioti said. “They were doing the player-run practices and he leads that a lot. He’s a big mouthpiece for us. We’re going to need him to lead us.”
As a starter in 2018, Stille recorded 25 tackles, five sacks, six quarterback hurries and two pass break-ups in his first season as a full-time defensive end after playing some outside linebacker as a redshirt freshman.
Stille had a career-high 31 tackles including 8.0 for loss this season playing behind Carlos and Khalil Davis, and he had two of his more disruptive games of the season in the two games he started, Northwestern (career-high five tackles and half a sack) and Wisconsin (three tackles, one quarterback hurry, one pass break-up).
Damion Daniels and Deontre Thomas have both played quite a bit of football as well, at least compared to everyone else in that room, and Tuioti is putting some of that leadership responsibility on the pair of juniors as well. But Stille is still the one leading the way, as evidenced by his performance on the first day of spring ball.
“Ben Stille is awesome,” Tuioti said. “We’re putting a lot on his shoulders this year just in terms of being a leader for us. He meets with the guys in the offseason in the film room and he’s done a great job of that. He was awesome today in practice just in terms of his tempo and is violence and his strike. He was able to get in the backfield and affect the quarterback a little bit. So he’s leading by example but he’s also being very vocal too. We’re going to need all that experience, everything he has, and he takes a lot of pride in the University of Nebraska and trying to make sure we put a product out there that we’re all proud of.”
Stille is a home-grown Husker, hailing from Ashland, just 25 miles northeast of Memorial Stadium. He played his high-school ball at Ashland-Greenwood. This program means a great deal to him, and the Huskers have yet to truly have success with him on the field. The last time Nebraska had a winning record was his redshirt year in 2016.
“I think Ben really wants to leave a legacy here before it’s all said and done,” Tuioti said. “He’s got a lot on his shoulders because he has to bring a lot of young guys along with him, and that’s a big task for a guy like him. To be a leader, you have to be able to lead by example and he’s not afraid to do that and he does do that. I know it means a lot for him to come out and make sure that we can finish this season the right way and do something different than the last few classes weren’t able to do and get this team postseason play.
“Ben’s a great leader. I love Ben. His demeanor is exactly where our defensive line group is right now. We have to come out with a chip on our shoulder because we have a lot to prove. We have a lot of young guys that haven’t proven anything yet, but they’re talented and they’re just excited for their time to come.”
At the start of spring ball, Tuioti rattled off six names he felt mostly comfortable with — Stille, Daniels, Thomas, junior college transfer Jordon Riley, redshirt freshman Ty Robinson and sophomore Casey Rogers. He wants that number to be at least eight by the start of the season.
With spring ball interrupted and the players isolated from the coaches, Stille’s experience and leadership will play an even larger part in making sure the Huskers will be able to hit the ground running whenever football resumes.
Stille said the close losses to teams they should have beat stoked a fire in the team heading into the offseason, and now that motivation will have to carry them through this time of isolation. Competitiveness, grittiness and toughness are three traits Stille said he wants the team to possess, and he’s doing his part to instill that in the defensive line room and on the team as a whole.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.