CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – What’s the quickest a Husker has ever earned a Blackshirt mid-season? Not talking games here, but plays.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Ben Stille only played 17 snaps last week. Not sure how many he played during Nebraska’s 28-6 win over Illinois on Friday, but they were productive snaps. On a good night for the Blackshirts overall, Stille stood out. He had four tackles on the night. Three of them were behind the Illini line of scrimmage, including one sack. He also forced a fumble.
“I was definitely more comfortable with everything we were doing out there having a little more time under my belt,” Stille said. “That helped a lot just being able to play a lot faster.”
That should make Husker fans pretty anxious to see what more might be in store because Stille has made an impressive case for himself through two games.
A little more than a week ago, he was still a third-string defensive end. That was after giving outside linebacker a try during the spring. But injuries to starter Marcus Newby and up-and-comer Tyrin Ferguson left the Huskers shorthanded headed into the Rutgers game.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said the coaches asked themselves a simple question: “Who is not participating that should?”
And they came up with what has looked like a simple answer.
“Oh, there, Ben. He’s worked hard. He’s been non-stop in his energy, effort and preparation. We’re not shocked.”
Everyone else probably should be at Stille’s quick rise. He was part of a wave of Huskers dropping the Illini for losses, 10 of them, on Friday, but with three in this game and one in his debut, Stille now leads Nebraska in that category.
Diaco credited the players for Nebraska’s increased disruption in this one, as he always does. Stille credited the coaches.
“I was just playing the call,” he said. “Coach Diaco gives us great calls, so I just do what I’m supposed to do.”
That might seem like a small thing, but doing what you’re supposed to do will keep a player on the field in this defense. Just listen to how Diaco described Stille after the game.
“He sets a strong edge. He understands force and alley defense as it relates to his positioning and the players around him. He gives great, great effort, so he’ll continue to thrash around until something good happens for him.”
Sound like a guy you can work with? Nebraska’s improving defense has a couple of those. Fellow outside linebacker Luke Gifford leads the team in tackles with 33. Inside linebacker Chris Weber is second at 31. In two games, Stille has looked a lot like those guys have for all of 2017 – they’re where they need to be most of the time and when they are good things tend to happen.
Those three also share something else in common: They’re all Nebraskans.
“A lot of the program was built around that all throughout Nebraska’s history,” Stille said. “We definitely take pride in being guys from around here and being the cornerstone.”
Diaco likes to refer to the pride of the state often. When Nebraska handed out 16 Blackshirts to start the season he said those players now had a goal to “carry the burden of accountability and responsibility of defending the hopes and dreams of the team, the university and the state of Nebraska.”
If it felt a little flowery then, maybe it should feel less so after watching Stille go from buried on the depth chart to Nebraska success story in two games. The Huskers’ defense, much maligned after six quarters this season, seems to be finding a solid group of guys willing to buy into the bombast, Nebraskan or not.
Illinois and Rutgers are Illinois and Rutgers. Nobody’s pretending they aren’t, but since that first half against Oregon this young defense has surrendered two touchdowns in its 14 quarters since. The Huskers just held their third straight opponent to 250 yards or less for the first time since 2003.
It’s progress Nebraska is going to need as Wisconsin and Ohio State head to Lincoln in the two weeks to come. And if Nebraska guys are part of the reason for that progress, well, that’s always going to play particularly well. It’s at least what this season wasn’t three weeks ago. There’s a specific word for it.
“It’s fun to have Nebraska guys, especially a young player like Ben come in and play the way he has, not really bat an eye, but play hard and do his job,” Weber said. “It’s fun for an upperclassmen to see guys like that.”
Even the Jersey guy and former Hawkeye agrees.
“Isn’t that fun?” were the first words Diaco said when asked about Stille.
Seems like we have a consensus.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.