NEW YORK — Ndamukong Suh's true impact on Nebraska football comes next year. And the year after.
The star defensive tackle left his mark at NU this fall with a season that places him among the school's all-time legends. Suh continued to validate that status on Saturday night, finishing fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting behind running back Mark Ingram of Alabama, running back Toby Gerhart and Texas quarterback Colt McCoy.
Suh's finish ranks as the highest by a defensive player since Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson won the Heisman in 1997. The 22-year-old senior from Portland, Ore., is the highest-finishing lineman since Steve Emtman placed fourth in 1991 and the 15th defensive player in 75 years to finish in the top four.
There's a spot for all of it in the history books.
But what does the greatness of Suh mean right now — to the immediate future?
Let Carl Pelini explain. Within an hour of the frantic finish in the Big 12 championship game eight days ago as Texas beat Nebraska 13-12 despite a dominant defensive effort led by Suh, Pelini's voice-mail inbox was full.
“I had upwards of 25 high school football players who called and said, more or less, that they want to play for that defense,” Pelini said. “When we said early in the season that Suh was the face of our program, I don't think even we realized what was happening.”
Suh leaves a monumental hole to fill on the defensive line. But his jet-setting journey that peaked in New York on college football's biggest stage, more important, helped create a long-lasting legacy.
His play established a foundation upon which defensive success will be judged under coach Bo Pelini.
When Pelini sat with Suh at his parents' home 11 months ago, they hashed out the reasons for Suh's return to Nebraska as a senior. He wanted to graduate. It's happening this week.
He wanted to improve as a defender. Check. He wanted to lead the Huskers and compete for a championship. NU came within one second and one point of its first conference title in a decade. Suh was named a team captain Friday night.
Never did he plan to do this, though. Never did Suh set out to build a legacy that makes him the standard.
Still, it happened.
“That's great,” Suh said. “I'm glad to set that foundation. But we have a high standard regardless, whether it was Grant Wistrom or the Peter brothers, Rich Glover, I'm really following in their footsteps and trying to be better than them.
“I wouldn't want someone to be like me. I'd want someone who goes to Nebraska to be better than me. You can always be better. Why not?”
Suh's humility is exceeded only by his natural talent.
Even his mother, who relented and allowed Suh to play football as a sophomore at Portland's Grant High School in 2002, understands the lofty standard.
“For anybody to feel they can match up to him,” Bernadette Suh said, “it might be a little challenging.”
That won't stop future Huskers from trying, especially if the head coach has any say in the matter.
“Those standards aren't going away anytime soon,” Bo Pelini said. “He just shows how far we've come and the type of football we want to play at Nebraska.”
Pretty far, considering Suh considered transferring to Oregon State after the Huskers finished the 2007 season ranked 112th in total defense. They're ninth this year and second in scoring defense.
Suh arrived Saturday night at the Heisman ceremony with few regrets. Sure, he thinks about the Huskers' four losses, especially those against Texas, Iowa State and Virginia Tech by a total of four points.
Suh likes to say he's never satisfied — that he can always strive for better. More than stats, he said, he's “all about wins.”
But he felt like he gave his best effort this year. Ultimately, that was his goal and another reason for Suh's return this year.
“A lot of guys say they're going to come back and get better,” Carl Pelini said. “He came back on a mission. It wasn't coming back for show or to improve his draft status.”
It was for a game like that one against Texas.
“I can't even explain how good he was,” the defensive coordinator said. “I just know in that game, I kept asking him if I needed to spell him, if he needed to take a break. He'd say, ‘No I'm good.' And then he went out and made another play.”
There's your legacy.
“I want to be seen as a great player,” Suh said. “Having my name on the walls, it means I actually did something.”
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• Heisman finalists enjoy the moment:
Previous postseason stories about Heisman finalist Ndamukong Suh:
• Top 10 plays: Wherever foes turned, Suh was there
• Gotham has Suh going gaga
• Even Rimington marvels at Suh's physical strength
• Video: Suh, the sights and sounds
• Suh chosen as Huskers' MVP
• Suh adds two more awards to his haul
• Suh regrets final play in Dallas
• A Game of the Century effort
• Suh nabs first award with Nagurski Trophy
• Suh's Heisman stock rises
• Suh smothers Longhorns
• Photo Showcase: Nebraska's Heisman winners