All the talk has been focused on the secondary
Granted, the secondary deserves to eat up its fair share of column inches and word counts given how much it struggled last season, but that defensive line needs to improve, too. A great front unit, a havoc-creating front unit, a disruptive front unit helps a secondary tremendously. Nebraska did not have that kind of unit last season.
The Blackshirts ranked 125th in D-line havoc rate (TFLs, pass break-ups and forced fumbles), 128th in adjusted sack rate, 128th in rushing success rate and 130th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). Graduated linebacker Chris Weber wasn’t just the team’s leading tackler, he was one of the defense’s only semi-consistent disrupters. The next-best guy was Stille.
With 9.5 tackles for loss (team high), 3.5 sacks (also a team high) and a pass break-up and forced fumble each a season ago, maybe Stille, now a redshirt sophomore defensive end, is a building block in the front seven.
So far, Husker coaches have asked a lot of him.
“We’re asking him to do some different things now, we’re kind of moving him around,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said Monday after practice. “He’s playing four, he’s playing three, he’s playing five, he’s had to learn a bunch in a hurry.”
That’s nothing new, though. In 2017, Stille moved back and forth between defensive end and outside linebacker. If you ask his preference, it’s end. He’s happier when he gets to pin his ears back and strike the man in front of him than he is dropping into coverage. He watched Jared Crick and Ndamukong Suh growing up and then Ross Dzuris when he got to Nebraska. All linemen.
Stille has gone to work in the weight room this summer, something he says has boosted his confidence on the field. Nebraska's official website lists him at 290, a massive spike from the 255 he was listed at last season. He jokes that he packed on the muscle this summer so he physically couldn’t play outside backer anymore.
“Yeah I don’t think I can stand up and play outside backer at 283 pounds so hopefully by putting on that amount of weight I’ve solidified myself at a spot,” he said with this sort of rye, sarcastic tone. Stille has never been too flashy when he’s in front of cameras, but the new Husker coaching staff has asked him to speak up more in front of teammates.
“Coach [Chinander] was just saying the team needs leaders,” he remembers from this staff’s early days. “‘Why not be you?’
“If you want to be a leader, you have to be vocal so that’s definitely been something I’ve been working on and the coaching staff asked me to try and do more of when they first got here.”
Stille has this veteran-like aura about him. It feels like he’s been around for a while, like he’s older than he is. Chinander is working through that trap, too, sometimes expecting more of a kid that is still technically developing.
“I think we all take for granted sometimes with Ben that he is a sophomore,” Chinander said. “He’s a young guy. Sometimes we treat him like he’s a lot older and we expect a lot more but we still have some teaching to do with Ben.
“I think he’s to the point now where he knows what to do, it’s just the details. The minute things. If he encounters this block, if they don’t block him at all, if they’re reading him, what is he going to do if he’s in a pass rush mode and all of the sudden they go down for run? It’s just the details and technique is where he kinda needs to excel a little bit.”
So what exactly is his role going to be in the new defense? He has transitioned to line full-time but he’s still moving around a little between outside and inside. Going from end to nose, though, as Stille puts it, is not a big difference. A small price to pay to get on the field more. And being versatile will get him on the field more.
“For my guys, the more they know, the better chance they have to get on the field,” coach Mike Dawson says. “So if they know how to play nose and end and be able to go back and forth and play both, that’s great.”
Truth be told, they don’t even really need Stille to be one of those ends that can consistently demand a double-team. Dawson says they want him to be putting offensive lines in positions where they can’t even think about a double.
“Hopefully we’re knocking guys back far enough where we’re not getting double-teamed,” he said. “It all goes back to striking your man. If you can get your hands on the guy across from you, knock him back and recreate the line of scrimmage, that’s kind of our goal on all the plays. Hopefully you’ll see our guys coming off the ball and creating a new line of scrimmage and knocking it back, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
If it works, you’ll see guys at Stille’s old spot like Luke Gifford and Breon Dixon and Caleb Tannor making the highlight plays. In two years at Central Florida, Chinander’s defensive lines ranked 83rd (2016) and 89th (2017) in the country in havoc rate while the linebackers were 1st (2016) and 14th (2017).
Even still, Stille is probably a little too talented to suggest he won’t build off of what was mostly a solid individual redshirt freshman season a year ago. Dawson says he works too hard. Chinander says he’s every bit the player they were told about.
“He has lived up to expectations,” Chinander said.
Usually a good sign.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.