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Ndamukong Suh is the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Week who finally pulled a black jersey over his head again this week, but this time, it means something because it connects him and his teammates with the past and with coaches who made them work almost three months longer to earn that simple, but high honor.
A man named Suh can catch a pass, scare the daylights out of a linebacker and score a touchdown just as easily as he can track down a quarterback like a heat-seeking missile or bust the chops of the most physical running back who dares to take him on.
He can move his head coach to put in the same kind of offensive package LSU used and remind his offensive coordinator of Eric Dickerson, a running back who spent 11 years in the NFL.
He can create some fun for his quarterback, who likes to call him “Ducky” and wonder when offensive coordinator Sean Watson might use him on a fullback trap.
He can come back from an ACL injury as fast as just about anyone.
He can spend an entire spring inside the hip pocket of Carl Pelini while recovering from surgery and become the ultimate sponge, so he can understand how one season full of frustration can be followed by another where you look like the best defensive lineman in the Big 12, a future All-American and an almost sure-fire pro.
He can play the game of his life and have no idea why he’d be honored over Zach Potter, Ty Steinkuhler or Pierre Allen, the other three-quarters of Nebraska’s defensive front four – teammates he thought played just as well as he did against the Jayhawks.
Watching Bowl Games at Home in Portland is No Fun
He can explain the agony of watching Mississippi State – the school he had originally committed to before changing his mind in favor of Nebraska – play Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl last December. He can remember thinking why it was so hard to sit there, in your own living room, alone, in Portland, Ore., and wonder how upside down that experience was and always will be.
He can talk for 10 minutes why he loves going into “the cage” at practice every day – a four-foot-high sweat box that keeps his feet moving constantly, so he can play at a lower center of gravity and a lower pad level than a 6-4, 295-pound defensive lineman legally should be allowed to play.
No wonder Ndamukong, a 21-year-old majoring in construction management engineering, can articulate the virtues of an attacking defense and show the world how you can play with incredible swagger, yet keep the genuine humility that your parents have always insisted should supersede any and all accomplishments.
Camaroonian-born Michael Suh, a mechanical engineer who has his own equipment company in Portland, was working last Saturday while his son was dismantling the Jayhawks, but he was keeping track of the action digitally. His mother, Jamaican-born Bernadette Suh, a first-grade teacher, was at a large “Oregonians for Nebraska” watch site, the Refectory, in Portland, sitting next to Husker offensive lineman Matt Slauson’s great aunt.
Even without his parents and his sister, Ngun, a Mississippi State graduate in kinesiology and biological sciences now working on her master’s degree at Portland State University, Suh found a way to celebrate family style. Joe Rollins, who coached him at Grant High School in Portland, now lives in Houston and drove to Lincoln with his family for the weekend. “David Harvey (junior backup defensive end) came over to my house, and I cooked some Jamaican chicken and patties,” Suh said. “Coach Rollins and I came up to the players’ lounge (in the North Stadium) and played pool. We’re two firey guys and like to get after each other. We played 10 games. I think I beat him eight times.”
“Ndamukong is a great kid,” said Carl Pelini, Nebraska’s defensive coordinator. “When he was healing from surgery last spring, he was standing next to me every day, learning everything he could. He was so in tune with us coaching that he wanted to correct every mistake himself. Honestly, by the end of spring, he was helping his teammates correct their mistakes. Here’s a guy who’s had both knees operated on since he’s been here, so he became a student of the game and a coach of the game. Combine that with his strength, intelligence, technique, leverage and humility, and I’m hoping that he makes All-Big 12. If he does, I know it would never go to his head.”
Jason Peter: the Difference is Like Night and Day
Former Nebraska All-America defensive lineman and first-round NFL draft choice Jason Peter is in relative awe of what Suh and his fellow defensive linemen have accomplished this season. “The progress these guys have made from last year to where they are today is unbelievable,” he said. “You have to remember that they were one of the worst defenses in the country last year, and they’re playing this year with a lot of the same guys. The difference is like night and day. They understand what it takes to compete in the Big 12 and on a national level.
“The thing that speaks out the most is their work ethic and the way they hustle. I mean, they empty their tanks. They’re pumped, and they’re proud. I’m proud, too, because you can tell these guys understand the standard that has been set here at Nebraska for years and years. Bo Pelini and Carl Pelini made them earn their Blackshirts with the whole blood, sweat and tears mentality. There’s no way those guys are ever going to want to give those Blackshirts back, but they all realize now that they have to take their game to a whole new level. They haven’t even scratched the surface of what they can accomplish.”
Suh agrees.“There’s not going to be any letup by any means,” he said. “We’ve gotten bowl-eligible. We’re happy about that. Losing to Colorado last year and missing out on a bowl game is the worst thing a college player can experience. It didn’t hit me until I was at my house, watching everybody else playing their bowl games and knowing that we should be somewhere. Maybe not the most glorified bowl game . . . we just knew we should be somewhere. At Nebraska, that’s normality.”
If Nebraska doesn’t beat K-State Saturday, Suh said the Kansas game won’t mean anything. “We want to finish out the regular season on a strong note and go into a bowl game firing on all cylinders, so we can hit those bowl practices in high gear and keep it going until we get the chance to play whoever we’re going to play in whatever bowl game,” he said.
Peter and Suh believe that leadership in the line sets the tone for the defense and dictates the tempo for every game. “The stats were a surprise to me in the KU game,” Suh said. “I didn’t realize I had 12 tackles. Even though I’ve gotten some of the accolades this week, I think Potter easily could have done the same thing. He had a great game. Steinkuhler had a great game. Our whole front four really fed off of each other. If it wasn’t me and if it wasn’t Potter, it was Steinkuhler or Pierre (Allen). We watched that film Monday, and we all relentlessly went after the quarterback. When he tried to string it out, all four of us were within reach almost every time. I don’t know how it’s happened, but we’ve had some great practices, and we’re starting to reap the benefits of that.”
Actually, Suh does know how and why it’s happening. “It has to do with the coaches,” he said. “They’re definitely after us, and I love the way they challenge us. But it’s not threatening. They help us understand what we have to get done. It honestly and truthfully has to do with technique.”
Defense is a Bit of Swagger and an ‘Attacking’ Mindset
Character and attitude rank right up there with technique. “On defense, you have to have a swagger and you have to get after somebody and hit ‘em in the mouth,” Suh said. “That’s why I will always prefer defense over offense. You can inflict pain and impose your will. I just love the feeling of hitting a running back and putting him on his back.
“We’re an attacking defense. We don’t sit back and wait to see what you give us. If you play defense that way, with a passive mind, you’re setting yourself up for failure. That’s what this defense is taking from these coaches. They love to get after the offenses and have them wondering who’s coming, who’s not coming, whether we’re going to bring eight men or if we’re just going to leave it to our defensive line and have our secondary just blanket your wide receivers and running backs. That’s one thing that I love that our defense has. We can do multiple things and still get after your offense.”
Carl Pelini has been waiting patiently for some swagger to emerge. “All of a sudden, these guys are flying all over the field,” he said. “It’s psychological as much as physical, and it’s been building since the Western Michigan game in the opener. I’m so proud of them. A KU coach told one of our coaches after the game how dominant our defensive line was. He said the thing that killed them more than anything was when they did get space on the edge, our interior linemen and ends were running down the sideline. As a coach, that’s the greatest compliment you can get.”
Jason Peter this week chided Grant Wistrom that he never would have been an All-America defensive end “if it hadn’t been for those two guys in the middle – me, of course, being one of them,” Peter said. “It’s true of this defense, too. It’s gotten a lot better. They’ve reached some of their goals because of the two guys in the middle – Suh and Steinkuhler. It all starts up front. When you’re strong there, other players start to shine, like Zach Potter and Pierre Allen. And everything else is connected to the front four. When the offense has to bring more blockers to take care of the ground that Suh and Stein are holding, that means a linebacker is running free or a safety can help on the run.”
KU Game is the New Standard for Suh’s Performance
Suh “has all the talent in the world,” Peter said. “If you could take him and plug him into our ’95 to ’97 teams, this kid would have been an All-American already. He has more upside than any of us ever had. I also want to be cautious about that. Talent doesn’t get you anywhere. You have to continue to go out and do all the hard work, week after week after week, so you get better and better and better. The Kansas game is the new standard for Ndamukong Suh. Every week he has to play up to that or better, and the players around him have to do the same thing. That’s the way you become a great football player. You can’t go backwards. You never walk out on that practice field expecting to stay the same or play the same. Suh and everyone around him have to continue to get better.
“If I had to start a team, the first guy picked would be a noseguard. I don’t know if there are any other noseguards in the Big 12 that I would take over Suh. He just has to go out and take advantage of the tools that God gave him, and he can dominate pretty much anybody out there. If he plays to the best of his ability, I don’t see any offensive lineman in the Big 12 who can block him.”
Peter relishes the opportunity in front of Suh and his teammates. “This group has the chance to do something I never had the opportunity to do, and that’s to make Nebraska a powerhouse again,” he said.
“We’ve been down for so many years that this group of players is in a unique position. They can be responsible for turning this program around and making us relevant again in college football,” Peter said. “They can put Nebraska back where we should be, and Suh is a big part of that. He can take care of some unfinished business himself and still be a top 10 pick the next year. The sky is the limit for this guy, and it’s going to be fun for all of us to watch him grow.”