No time for second best

Summer conditioning is what it is. Basically, it's a grind, it's hot and the "voluntary" workouts seem to go on forever. Not a day at the beach, to say the least. But for one defensive tackle this has been as much fun as he's had since he's arrived.

It would be hard to put a little joy in Summer conditioning. OK, let's call that impossible.

"Joy" is probably not the right word.

"Rewarding" might be a bit more accurate.

Sophomore Jared Crick sees that, and that doesn't have a thing to do with the fact that he'll probably be starting this year.

With Ty Steinkuhler gone, there's a hole that has to be filled, but it has more to do with the guy starting to the right of him than it does having to replace the 48 tackles, eight tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks Steinkuhler notched last year.

When junior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said he would be coming back for his senior year, the goal was to find someone who could duplicate what Steinkuhler did so well. That wasn't to be a force, but rather a compliment to Nebraska's most likely preseason All-American candidate.

From Spring to now that job has seemingly been Crick's, the Cozad, Nebraska native taking the move from defensive end to the interior almost seamlessly from what Defensive Tackles Coach Carl Pelini said over the Spring. "He's done a great job. He is taking what we are teaching him very well, but the big thing is that he's showing great effort on every single play," he said. "That's where it begins, and it's just time and repetition to get down the rest. I think he'll do a good job for us inside."

Suh agreed as to Crick's progression, which he commented on in an interview we did with him a few weeks ago. He said that the sophomore is getting down what he feels are the most important aspects of the position. "Me and Ty, we had kind of a rhythm going last year, where we fed off each other and it made us both better inside. I think Crick is going to give us and me the same thing this year," Suh said. "The technique is always the thing that's going to take longer to get. I know that I still have a lot of things to work on. But he definitely gives the effort, and he's got the athleticism to do a great job."

Suh is smiling as he comes back, but
everyone else is smiling as well

Despite the fact that he would seem to be the incumbent to the starting spot, despite the presence of other players such as sophomore Terrence Moore who actually notched two sacks in the season-opener against Western Michigan and finished the season with eight tackles overall. Then there is redshirt freshman Baker Steinkuhler, who came in with as much hype in regard to stars as any linemen in recent memory.

But the conversations have continued to surround Crick as the man. But as Crick said in regard to his attitude over the Summer, everyone has been going at it like nobody is the starter this year. "When we work out and just get together as a line it isn't about who is number one, who is number two or any of that. We are a unit, and that is honestly how we act around each other," Crick said. "I'm having so much fun right now, because nobody has to get everyone else going, nobody has to be brought along every day just to keep them going. Everyone actually wants to get in here and get better as a group."

That's the kind of cohesiveness that is essential to any team's success, but let's face it, you hear this kind of stuff every year. The comments are almost as if someone is reading them off a cue card. ‘The conditioning is as hard as it's ever been. We are in as good of shape as we have ever been. Everyone just can't wait to get going.'

You never heard Crick say those things before, though, and he'd be the first to tell you that this Summer he's seen a lot of things he never experienced. "Everyone wants to work. I couldn't say that last Summer. Everyone works to get everyone else up, no matter what year you are. I know I couldn't say that happened before either," he said. "From the top down this is actually a team, and I know I couldn't say that before."

Growing up in Nebraska and having dreams of just what it might be like to play with that "N" on your helmet and run out of that tunnel on Saturday's in the Fall, it's actually the other stuff leading up to perhaps his year to shine, which Crick said has convinced him more that this team is legit. "Everyone looks at what happens in the game , and that's how they judge us. But we don't judge based on that. We look at the weeks leading up to it," he said. "How you play is probably going to be how you practiced. And what your attitude is going into the season is probably the attitude you have right now.

"You can't even imagine how tight this defensive line is. I know I couldn't imagine it until I experienced it for myself. If you can't get excited about the season with this group, you need to do something else."

The excitement starts with Suh, of course. His loss would have been extreme. They would have lost their top tackler, a co-leader for the most interceptions and the overall leader when it comes to touchdowns scored on "D."

But it also has to do with the fact that just two years ago this team was giving up close to 500 yards per game, putting them statistically as one of the worst defenses in the entire country. Last year they gave up an average just under 350.

That still seems like a lot, but think of it this way: Out of the dozen teams in the conference only two teams averaged less than 376 yards per game on offense, that being Texas A&M, going through their first-year growing pains with new Head Coach Mike Sherman, and Colorado, which was decimated by injuries on offense almost all of last year.

Yet every single team Nebraska faced, even Oklahoma and Missouri, didn't reach their season average in yards when they faced the revamped Husker "D." In the cases of Texas Tech, Iowa State and Kansas State, Nebraska held each of those teams more than a hundred yards below what they were averaging going in to their game with Nebraska.

Some of it had to do with the fact that the Nebraska offense led the conference and finished second in the country in time of possession, of course. It's a statistic that any defensive player and coach would tell you that they love to see. Even Bo Pelini himself, a defensive guy by tradition, has continually said that the best defense is when his defense isn't even on the field.

And when the Husker defense was on the field last year, it was almost a mix-and-match, due to so many depth issues everywhere but the defensive line.

Here's another little factoid about experience and where Nebraska will be much different this year versus just a year ago:

Junior Eric Hagg now goes into a
season as a veteran, not a rookie.

In game one the Husker defense opened up against Western Michigan in the "Nickel" package. Starting at the Nickel-corner spot was sophomore Eric Hagg. Prior to this start Hagg had only played on special teams. Starting at free safety was junior Matt O'Hanlon, who had also never started a game in two years with the program, and brought just 11 career tackles into last season. Then sophomore Prince Amukamara, who was filling in for the injured Armando Murillo – again, no starts, and he had four career tackles going in. Even Anthony West, who almost seems like a journeyman at this point didn't have any starts prior to 2008 either. That doesn't include Cody Glenn at linebacker who had moved over from running back.

And throughout the season the Huskers would continue to go to the well of inexperience as true freshman Matt Holt would play in nine games, actually starting against Texas Tech. Then redshirt freshman Lance Thorell was called on to play 11 games, five of which he started.

That sound like a problem? That doesn't even take into account the loss of Dillard toward the middle of the season with an injury and the flat out dismissal of Glenn halfway through the year, at which point he was leading the entire team in tackles.

This year there probably will still be some fresh faces at linebacker. At BUCK, we expect redshirt freshman Sean Fisher to start. And we expect to see senior Colton Koehler start at the middle. Koehler played in seven games last year, started one and totaled 17 tackles on the season. At WILL, you could see starting, a redshirt freshman in Matt May, a lightning-quick linebacker who played in eight games last year, but without a start. He totaled six tackles on the season, including one sack.

So, there is youth there, but for a secondary which lined up in Nickel and Dime almost the entire season, Secondary Coach Marvin Sanders has to be jumping for joy at the possibilities. Now it isn't about what he doesn't have, but what he does have coming back.

Well, let's make it easy for you: Armando Murillo is gone.

Yes, he was a 12-game starter last year, but that's it. Yes, that is actually it. One guy leaves, the rest return. Instead of last year where the secondary went into the season with 22 starts between two guys (Murillo and Larry Asante) you have 55 starts between seven.

Back to the defensive line, if senior Barry Turner makes it back full speed this Fall, which he wasn't in the Spring, his 13 career starts added to those of junior Pierre Allen (11 starts last year), the player who filled in for him after he was injured in game two, along with Suh who brings in 24 starts to his name, it will be just Crick who hasn't started a game. Even if you had dreamt of this moment your entire life you'd have to think that would be a bit unnerving.

Looking to either his left or his right, Crick expects he'll be just fine. "Look around me. We got Suh, who is the most aggressive player I have ever seen and someone who everyone will think they have to stop. Then you have Allen, who was awesome last year filling in for Barry. Then Barry, who we already know can do so many things and will be such a big weapon for us this year," he said. "Then you have "Cam" (redshirt freshman Cameron Meredith), who is going to be really, really good. That guy is built really well and he's got a great motor. Then there's Josh (redshirt freshman Josh Williams), who is so unbelievably quick off that edge it's amazing.

"Add that to the guys inside, we have a unit that if we play like a unit, it won't matter what experience one guy does or doesn't have. Everyone knows how to do their job."

Cornhusker fans talk of a national title as more a recalling of history than a prediction about the near future. Their minds find it a little easier to accept division title with a shot to play for a conference crown. All that is well and good, according to Crick. But he seems to remember everyone thought the defensive line was going to stink last year, and by the end of it there probably wouldn't be anyone who would argue that they were the strength of the team.

He says it's no time to start lowering the expectations.

"This is Nebraska. We have been down, yeah, but if you don't keep your goals high you aren't ever going to reach what your potential might be. You won't really know what you can do," he said. "There isn't a single one of us on this line who doesn't want to shut out every single team. That's what we want. That's what we practice for, because we aren't going into the season to do just OK.

"Our goal is a title – first the division, then the conference and whatever else is out there for us to win. If nobody on this team from the coaches to the players is willing to settle for anything else, I don't see why anyone else should either.

"We aren't busting our butts right now to be second best."

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