After a month on the shelf, senior co-captain Mick Stoltenberg was back on the field and in the trenches for the Huskers’ 45-9 win against Bethune-Cookman.
After missing the last four games following a knee procedure, Stoltenberg checked in off the bench and recorded an assisted tackle during his time on the field. After opening the season as the starting nose tackle, the coaches worked Stoltenberg in at defensive end while leaving junior Carlos Davis at the nose.
“The thing with Mick is you just get real excited for a guy that’s worked as hard as he has to be able to get back out there,” defensive line coach Mike Dawson said. “We put him in a little bit at end the other day and being able to kind of rotate him around — we’ve got some more guys that can play inside and he’s a big, long body which is kind of what we look for in our 4-technique. The guys that are going to play the end position, he’s one of the longest guys that we’ve got probably; without DaiShon [Neal] he’s the longest. I think it would be a good fit there and it gives him a chance to kind of get on the field a little bit more and it gives me a chance to kind of keep going with Carlos [Davis] inside a little bit and then Damion [Daniels] and Peyton [Newell] have done a good job of filling in inside also while Mick was hurt.”
At 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, the senior from Gretna offers a different body type than some of Nebraska’s other options at end and he has the versatility, like a few of Nebraska’s other linemen, to play anywhere he’s needed.
“I think you see that you can pick any one of the guys and they’ll be lined up on the tackle or lined up on a guard or lined up on the center depending on what the situation is and that’s something that we have to be able to carry over,” Dawson said. “I told Mick, when you’e playing inside of the tackle, it’s just like playing on the edge of the center; you do the same exact technique so you just have to transfer it over; you’re standing a little further from the ball, that’s all.”
Stoltenberg’s return to action is big for a team that has seen a handful of injuries at the defensive line position. True freshmen Tate Wildeman and Casey Rogers have been injured most of the season and are in line for a redshirt, junior DaiShon Neal missed the Bethune-Cookman game with an injury and still wasn’t suited up for Tuesday’s practice and sophomore Deontre Thomas has been practicing with a club over his hand and hasn’t played in a game since suffering the injury.
“It’s real important,” Dawson said. “It’s good to have him out there, it’s good to have his leadership out there, it’s good to have him as a player out there. I’m happy that he’s back for sure.”
Dawson said he thought Stoltenberg did pretty well in his first action in some time, although his stamina level needs some work after missing so much time.
“I think he’s got to get back to into that game shape,” Dawson said. “It’s so hard to simulate football game shape. You can do as much running and conditioning as you want on the track or in the weight room but when you’re out there, that running combined with the hitting, it just takes something different out of you. He’s got to keep doing that and he knows that. He’s working hard at practice to try to simulate as best he can. He’ll bounce around a little bit; he’ll play a little bit on the tackle, he’ll play a little bit on the center. Either way, whether you’re a nose or an end for us, you always end up on the guard in some way, shape or form anyhow.”
As for Thomas, he has continued to dress on game day with the club on his hand but has already reached the four-game limit to play while maintaining a redshirt season. Dawson said the coaches haven’t decided to officially shut down Thomas just yet with four games still to play.
“To me, the redshirt thing and I always have that conversation with recruits and recruits’ parents. Redshirt means that before this year, it just means that you didn’t play in a full season and now it’s you didn’t play in more than four games so right now, he still is eligible because he’s only played in four but he’s still got that big hook on his hand, that big cast, club or whatever,” Dawson said. “But he also knows that we still have some games and that this season’s not over and we’ve got to take care of what we need to take care of for this year. Since I’ve been here, Deontre’s been awesome. He’s done a great job off the field in the classroom. He’s doing a great job with [strength] coach [Zach] Duval. Last night in the meetings, I mean, he’s working as hard as anybody, asking great questions that are really smart football questions. I’m real happy with where he’s at and he knows there are chances where he’s still practicing, and he may still see the field this year. We’re going to see how it all shakes out and he’ll do whatever’s best for the team; I know that.”
Last week, the coaches offered Blackshirts to the rest of the starters who hadn’t already received one, including sophomore Ben Stille. The Ashland-Greenwood product turned it down, however, citing poor performance in practice that didn’t live up to the Blackshirts standard. However, after stuffing the stat sheet against the Wildcats (three tackles including one for loss and two pass break-ups), Stille was decked out in black on Tuesday.
“He is hard on himself,” Dawson said about the newest Blackshirt. “I think I’ve said it before, he does a great job of studying and working hard to try to learn the scheme and learn the system and then he’ll spend more time critiquing himself on film probably than anybody in my room, anyway, which I think is great. He wants to go out there and he wants to be the best that he can be and he’s putting the work in. I think he’s steadily improving. He kind of dipped there in the middle and then the last couple games he’s kind of fighting back.”
Stille and the rest of the linemen are going to have to show up in a big way on Saturday if the Huskers are going to have a chance to hang with Ohio State. While the Buckeyes have struggled mightily to run the ball over the last few weeks, sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins is leading the Big Ten in nearly every single passing statistic with over 350 yards per game with 30 touchdowns. Nebraska can’t give Haskins time to hang in the pocket and pick the defense apart.
“He’s a big kid,” Dawson said about Haskins. “He looks bigger on film than what he’s listed at. He looks like a real great athlete. But he does a very good job of standing in there and you’ve got to do a good job. They’ve got a great big offensive line and they haven’t given up a ton of sacks this year, but you have to put pressure on them I think. When you’re rushing with four rushers, you’ve really got to do a good job of four guys rushing together. If one guy gets out of his lane or one guy gets off the technique, then that’s going to open up a step up. In this day and age, all the quarterbacks are so athletic that if you open up a lane, they’re going to be able to step up and throw it or they’re going to be able to step up and run it, either way. We have to do a good job of squeezing that and then getting our four guys to rush together to be able to keep him in the pocket for sure.”
Stille is second on the team behind outside linebacker Luke Gifford with five sacks including one in each of the last three games, but Nebraska hasn’t gotten a sack from a lineman other than Stille since the Purdue game. Freedom Akinmoladun, Khalil Davis and Carlos Davis have combined for seven sacks this season, but six of them came in the first two games of the season.
As the old cliché goes, football is won and lost in the trenches and Nebraska needs a big performance by its big men up front in Columbus this weekend.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.