LINCOLN — It took getting into the middle of the action for Mick Stoltenberg to realize how much he liked it, so the transition to defensive tackle two years ago turned out to be a good thing.
He has taken to the constant contact and tight quarters. A run up the middle has become one of his favorite things to see.
“At first I was kind of timid at it,” he said. “It was kind of new. But I’ve grown to love kind of the chaos of playing the middle. It’s something I strive to be a part of now.”
Stoltenberg came to Nebraska with experience mostly at defensive end and tight end at Gretna High School. Some projected him as an offensive tackle.
But he might never have thought about weighing 295 pounds, as he does entering his sophomore season.
“Back when I was 230?” he said. “I can’t imagine gaining 65 pounds. But I feel pretty good at the weight I’m at right now.”
Stoltenberg has to feel pretty good about everything, really.
He’s poised to make his first career start at defensive tackle when Nebraska hosts Fresno State next Saturday night. It caps a return from a torn ACL in December that kept him out of spring practice.
That rehab followed prior work to prepare his 6-foot-5 frame for a new set of challenges on the interior defensive line.
“When you’re playing on the edge, you’ve got a lot more space and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s kind of just different. Every time there’s an inside run it kind of fires me up a little bit, knowing that the ball’s going to show up in my gap.”
Stoltenberg and Kevin Maurice will try to plug the middle of the NU defensive line, where NFL draft picks Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine were among the losses after last season. Their backups will include redshirt freshmen Khalil and Carlos Davis.
But Stoltenberg said he’s excited about what first-year assistant coach John Parrella has done with the defensive line in general, and him in particular.
“I don’t know if I could pick just one thing,” Stoltenberg said. “Technically I’m better with my hands, better pass-rush moves, playing with better effort, better pad level with a better stance. It’s pretty hard to pick out a few things, because I’ve definitely gotten better all-around as a player since he got here.”
Proper pad level is a must since Stoltenberg is a few inches taller than Maurice and the Davis twins, but defensive coordinator Mark Banker said he has good “bend” to go with improved flexibility, mobility and change of direction.
And Parrella, who played 12 NFL seasons as a 6-3 defensive tackle, said Stoltenberg is built perfectly for what the Huskers need him to do.
“The days of the short and fat nose are gone. They’re gone,” Parrella said. “You look at the National Football League, most of those guys are his size.
“I think there’s a challenge and I think there’s an advantage. The challenge is to make sure you play with low pad level, and the advantage is he’s the size of a building. So good luck moving him.”
Stoltenberg said the move to defensive tackle happened in his first year at NU, when he was redshirting and the defensive line coach was Rick Kaczenski. Stoltenberg was unsure the move was permanent, but Hank Hughes kept him there a year ago. He still was listed last year at 265, so he put a heavier focus on bulking up.
He played in nine games as a backup tackle and on the punt team, and was starting to give Banker glimpses of his potential.
“You could just see him starting to come along,” Banker said. “That bowl practice, that was the shame of the whole thing — he was having probably the best practice that he had had when he injured the knee.”
It was the second ACL tear for Stoltenberg, who suffered his first early in his senior season at Gretna.
The timing would allow for him to be ready for the 2016 season, but it delayed his on-field first impressions for Parrella, who was taking over for Hughes. Stoltenberg just stayed close by through spring practice, and found other ways to acclimate to his new position coach.
“He definitely gave me the opportunity to get to know him during the spring,” Stoltenberg said. “His door’s always open. He’s a real personable guy. So it was always easy to go in there and talk to him, just talk football or life, so I built a pretty good relationship with him.”
This season will reveal more, but Stoltenberg already believes he’s developed into a better player at defensive tackle than he would have been at end. The knee won’t be an issue, he said, and the only practice he missed this month was precautionary because a hamstring tendon behind the knee was sore.
Now it’s just time to play again. Finally.
“Obviously real hungry,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I had a pretty substantial role, but I think Coach Parrella is preparing us the right way and I think I’ll be ready come September 3rd.”