Nebraska has been without one of its captains on the field over the last four weeks, but if senior nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg has anything to say about it, that is going to change on Saturday against Bethune Cookman.
The 6-foot-5 senior who had a procedure done on his knee after the Michigan game has been back at practice the last couple of days.
“I’m feeling healthy enough to practice and getting ready to go,” Stoltneberg said. “I’m hoping I can play this weekend and take as many reps as they’re going to give me. It’s just been a process getting back healthy but I’m feeling ready now.”
After leading the team in snaps from the nose tackle spot against Troy and Colorado, Stoltenberg was limited to 11 snaps against Michigan and has missed the last four games because of a knee issue.
“It probably was one of those things that maybe got injured early on, maybe prior to the first game, but it was one of those things we thought maybe we’d be able to manage, and then clearly in the Michigan game it locked up on me a few times and we realized we might have to go in and work on it,” Stoltenberg said. “That’s what had to be done and it’s feeling good now. Shoot, about a four-week recovery from that stuff.”
When Stoltenberg first went down, the thought that he might be done for good certainly crossed his mind. He’s dealt with multiple injuries throughout his career, first during his senior year of high school that cut his season short, then again after his redshirt sophomore year when he tore his ACL. He got banged up early in spring ball this season as well and had to miss some time.
“I’ve been kind of dealing with some knee injuries throughout my career, so I was kind of wondering the severity of it and how it would be,” Stoltenberg said. “But me and Mark Mayer and Drew Hamblin and the guys in the training room and the doctors and everything kind of came up with a plan of how we were going to rehab it and what we were going to do and basically kind of a plan to get me back as fast as possible. It’s really not a strength thing that I’m dealing with, it’s more just getting used to some of the work that was done in there and making sure swelling is down and I get my full extension and flexion and everything like that.”
Defensive line coach Mike Dawson said after practice on Tuesday that he wasn’t surprised to see the big man back on the practice field so soon.
“He’s such a hard-working guy,” Dawson said. “He really wants to get back out there. I think if anyone can probably make the recovery as short as possible or the rehab as short as possible, it’s Mick because he’ll work so hard at it. I also think his threshold for pain is higher than most so he can kind of grind through some things that maybe other people might put the brakes on a little bit. I know as soon as he can get back, he’ll be back for sure.”
Stoltenberg may not have been able to play on the field, but he hasn’t been keeping to himself to focus on his rehab. The senior co-captain has been a constant presence on a sideline and an extra coach of sorts for Nebraska’s staff.
“He’s been great,” Dawson said. “He did the same thing all spring. I think was in maybe the first two practices before his knee went on him in the spring time and it was like he went out and got himself repaired and as soon as he came back, it was like having another coach on the field. It’s been great. Sometimes I get nervous when other guys start getting a little loud with the guys, like ‘Oh, what’s he telling them?’ You have to watch them, but Mick is on the same page and he’s saying the same thing I’m saying to them. It’s great to have another voice. I have a lot of guys that are really good that have been in these situations before and know how to do it. Sometimes that carries a little bit more weight than a big, fat bald guy with a whistle telling you what to do.”
Being forced to watch from the sideline as opposed to doing it in the trenches himself has helped Stoltenberg learn a bit more about the game and what other teams are trying to do against Nebraska, something that should only help him once he returns to the field.
“You kind of see things from a different vantage point, especially during the games on Saturday,” Stoltenberg said. “It’s tough for you when you’re in there to kind of see maybe what’s going on or the type of blocking combinations or maybe the personnel that was in there. Me and any other guys that maybe weren’t playing, we try to make sure we’re coordinating, make sure every play we know what’s going on and kind of trying to help them, share things that we might see. That was kind of my role the last few weeks.”
With Stoltenberg on the sideline, Dawson has had to lean on the other veterans in his group for on-field guidance in his stead.
“You look to the leadership and guys like Peyton and Freedom have done a nice job,” Dawson said. “Then you have the younger guys that start stepping up. The twins, you know, physically their bodies are in the spot. Now they have to help to bring some of the leadership. They’ve had a great attitude, very selfless guys that are trying to do whatever is best for the team and get some of the younger guys coming along. I think the same thing is going to happen in a few weeks when we lose two more – alongside Mick – seniors and you have to replace those guys and have people spread out in their spots. It’s a continuous cycle. That’s one of the cool things about coaching.”
After Stotlenberg went down, Carlos Davis slid inside full-time to start at the nose after bouncing between end and nose in the first few games. Stoltenberg said he’s been impressed by what he’s seen from the junior, who received his Blackshirt alongside his twin brother Khalil on Tuesday.
“Carlos stepped up and he’s played really well at nose,” Stoltenberg said. “He’s probably one of the most versatile defensive linemen I’ve played around. I think you can put him anywhere from five-technique to shade to zero and all across the board. He did a great job.”
As for a return to the field for Stoltenrberg, Dawson was cautious with his estimated timeline on Tuesday.
“I think the big thing is to be smart,” Dawson said. “You don’t want to go too early or too soon and all of a sudden you’re out there for a play or two and something happens. You have to be smart with what you’re doing. When the doctors and training staff say he’ll be good to go, we’ll get him out there. The other thing that will be important for him is to get his wind back. It’s been a month with no football. You know, simulating running and doing stuff off the field with the conditioning is easier than physically done when you’re playing the game and playing a game speed and combining the running with that and the hitting, which I think takes a different toll on your body. Put those two things together and he’ll be all right.”
Stoltenberg’s personal timetable is a little more aggressive, however.
“I practiced yesterday, I practiced today, I took full-speed-with-pads-on reps, real football reps, so I’m hoping I can contribute Saturday,” Stoltenberg said. “I might not go out there and play 45, 50 snaps but I’ll play what they give me and I’ll do what I can to help as far as that goes. I feel ready to go. I don’t feel like I’m at the point where if I go out there I’m putting the team at a disadvantage. I feel like I can actually run and contribute.”
Regardless of if he returns this week, next week or later, Stoletnberg said he’s just looking to take full advantage of what remains of his final season as a Husker.
“I just want to do what I can to help us win, to go out on a strong positive note,” Stoltenberg said. “I was unfortunate to miss part of my senior season and it sucks and it’s tough and you spend a lot of time thinking about it, but at the end of the day I know I’m getting opportunities here at the end and I’m blessed for that. I’m blessed it wasn’t a season-ender. I’m blessed I haven’t really missed too much time in my career even despite all the injuries I’ve had, so I’m kind of just trying to take it with a grain of salt I guess, put it aside and try to finish out strong.”
As for whether or not football is in the cards for Stoltenberg beyond this season, that is still up in the air. He said playing in the NFL has always been a dream of his, but he’ll have to meet with the trainers and doctors and seek their advice before he makes any kind of decision about pursuing a professional playing career.
Whenever his playing days come to an end, the experience he’s gained at Nebraska over the past two seasons could serve him well should he choose to get into coaching.
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.