Mick Stoltenberg was without a uniform, but full of exuberance. His position coach, John Parrella, counts two or three times this spring when the house-sized defensive tackle, still rehabbing from injury, was so fired up he playfully punched Parrella before a practice.
"I'm like, 'What are you doing, man?'" Parrella joked.
The new coach was just finding out what the previous coach quickly learned about the 6-foot-5, 295-pound sophomore from Gretna. As defensive coordinator Mark Banker explained it, Stoltenberg was a favorite in meetings of former Husker defensive line coach Hank Hughes.
"Hank used to talk about him all the time. ... Mick was always in a bad mood — but he wasn't," Banker said. "He was just intense. Always into the meetings."
Bad mood. Intense. These words, in this case, are compliments.
While more ink has probably been spent this offseason on redshirt freshman defensive tackles Carlos and Khalil Davis, who also figure to have critical roles this fall, the in-state kid who spent this spring rehabbing from a December knee injury seems a leading contender to win a starting job next to senior Kevin Maurice for the Sept. 3 opener against Fresno State.
Since Banker arrived at Nebraska, he's been excited about the upside of Stoltenberg. "He looks good in a uniform," the coach said.
Now the Huskers need big No. 44 to look good on Saturdays in the fall.
After the defensive tackle redshirted in 2014, he played in nine games last season, working on special teams, seeing limited reps on the D-line. He had a sack against South Alabama. He scooped up a fumbled punt against Iowa.
It wasn't exactly headline material, but as Banker tells it, Stoltenberg was putting together one of the best practices of his career during a December workout when the big man planted wrong and stayed down.
Surgery on his knee was required. "It crushed me at the time but something I had been through before," said Stoltenberg, who had suffered a similar setback as a high school senior.
He sat out the spring, but he certainly stayed top of mind with Parrella. The coach was impressed with how the D-tackle stayed engaged.
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It paid off when fall camp showed up.
"You wouldn't know (he was injured) the first couple days," Parrella said. "Smart kid. Comes in and gets a ton of extra help every day. It's pretty typical of the kids in our defensive line. They want to get better, they want to learn.
"When you're young, sometimes you go and you go and you go, and then all of a sudden you get it. I think Mick is a kid that's going to get it relatively fast."
In a strange way, Banker also believes Stoltenberg's latest injury may end up benefiting him.
"Because Mick was always very strong and developed from the waist up," Banker said. "And even though he was strong in the lower body, the most important thing that's happened to him because of the rehab with his knee, his flexibility appears to have really increased, along with his mobility and change of direction."
The Huskers need Stoltenberg to be a quick study for a group of defensive tackles that has only one player with starting experience. That's Maurice, and even he's only started one game.
Every day this August is a critical one in development for Parrella's crew. Finding consistency is the mission.
"They can have a great play and then next play they're chasing ghosts. For our young guys ... have a great play and then the next play just do your job," Parrella said. "We'll get there. But ask me in a couple weeks and we'll know where we're at."
While everyone is battling to win a top job, Stoltenberg also knows it's going to have to be a group effort for this D-line to be a force.
Maurice, Stoltenberg, the Davis twins, Peyton Newell, Logan Rath. It's their show on the inside of that defensive line now.
"We're trying to push each other, because we know in order to make this a successful season, we're going to need to be able to roll eight, nine, 10 guys," Stoltenberg said. "That's what the elite teams do."