• Video Below: Bo Pelini, Husker players at Monday's press conference
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LINCOLN — It was less than two weeks after Ben Cotton separated his shoulder, yet he was standing next to Bo Pelini after practice and trying to prove he was healthy enough to play.
Cotton had to leave Nebraska's win over Penn State last year because of the injury. His arm was in a sling when he walked toward the team bus that afternoon in Happy Valley. The veteran tight end hadn't been practicing since.
But there he was, as the Huskers prepared to face Iowa, extending that ailing right arm out as straight as he could, raising it as high as he could. Cotton's right hand, balled into a fist, was shaking — probably because of the pain. He stared blankly at his coach.
“I'll give anything to play with those guys on Saturdays,” Cotton says.
This is why Nebraska's coaches will endlessly gush over Cotton and his value to this team. It's why his teammates love him. And it's the kind of intangible attribute that fans, reporters and analysts can easily miss about him.
Cotton's contributions can't be accurately evaluated through the box score. His old position coach, Ron Brown, said Cotton's best highlight as a Husker is a cut block from 2010.
He's a grinder and a gamer, a leader and a mentor. Offensive coordinator Tim Beck called Cotton “invaluable.” Graduate assistant Vince Marrow, who works with the tight ends, raved about Cotton's “tenacity.”
The spotlight is rarely on Cotton, though.
Sure, Ben gets noticed because he's the son of a Nebraska assistant coach, Barney. And because he has two brothers (Jake and Sam) on the NU roster. That story's been well documented.
But it's his play on the field, and his impact on teammates away from it, that is worthy of more attention.
Cotton has been Nebraska's best blocking tight end since his sophomore year, when he delivered that highlight-worthy edge block, clearing a lane for Roy Helu by taking out Missouri's Aldon Smith and another defender. He's certainly not perfect — Marrow wants him to better emphasize his technique in an effort to regularly maintain lower leverage — but his 6-foot-6, 255-pound frame can help him make up for mistakes.
Cotton has improved as a route runner, too. He's more agile and elusive. He caught 14 passes for 189 yards in 2011, and he should increase those figures if Nebraska is able to utilize more play action as planned.
He has other strengths, like his willingness to help tutor younger players. Or his constant emphasis on effort — he puts it like this: “The harder you play, the better you're going to be.”
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And then there's the toughness. Cotton played through two shoulder injuries before that Penn State game. He had a bad elbow, too. He ultimately did not get cleared to play against Iowa, but returned in time for the bowl game.
That resonates within the program, far more than statistics.
“He came out there and kept going after it,” junior tackle Jeremiah Sirles said. “That shows what character he has. You notice stuff like that.”
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• Video: NU coach Bo Pelini at Monday's press conference:
• Video: NU's Taylor Martinez at Monday's press conference:
• Video: NU's Rex Burkhead at Monday's press conference:
• Video: NU's Daimion Stafford at Monday's press conference:
• Video: NU's Will Compton at Monday's press conference: