Nebraska’s football captains weren’t elected until after the regular season, and all four seniors are in agreement on one very important thing after the Huskers’ 26-21 win over Clemson in the Gator Bowl . . . the foundation is set for even greater success in 2009.
“I predict our next team will be playing in a bigger bowl game this same time next year,” offered defensive end Zach Potter. “I see Nebraska being the favorite to win the North Division, and who knows what can happen after that? If (Ndamukong) Suh comes back, anything is possible, even a national championship game in the Fiesta Bowl.”
Potter’s senior captain teammates might have the same thoughts in the backs of their minds, but they choose to be more guarded.
“I don’t want to be too bold in making predictions, but if the pieces fall into the right spots, we could definitely be playing in a BSC bowl game next year,” said wide receiver Nate Swift, who called his 17-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter of the Gator Bowl “my favorite of all time because it was a tough catch on a third down in a huge game, and we needed to get the momentum going our way again.”
“I don’t want to put any more pressure on next year’s team than they already have, but if Suh stays, that defense is going to be awfully tough on all those offensive explosion teams in the Big 12,” quarterback Joe Ganz said. “In the Gator Bowl, we put our defense in a lot of bad spots, and they still had their best game of the season. Defense wins big games, and if next year’s team can get to the Big 12 championship, it can be a one-game playoff after that for the BCS.”
Defensive tackle Ty Steinkuhler, who had an eight-yard quarterback sack and two more tackles for losses against Clemson, issues more of a challenge to the ’09 team than a prediction about where it can or should be.
Huskers Had Two Ways to Go, and They Went Up
“When we started the season 3-3, we could have gone downhill like we did the year before, but senior leadership kept us from falling off the cliff,” Steinkuhler said. “We worked our rears off. We stayed together, and we played for each other, not ourselves. If next year’s team has the same work ethic and the same chemistry we had, it can easily have more success than we did and get to a BSC bowl game. It all starts in the next couple weeks with winter conditioning. I’m counting on this team approaching winter conditioning and spring practice like we did – all out, all the time.”
The ’08 Huskers took to Nebraska Strength and Conditioning Coach James Dobson like book lovers to Oprah.
“The legacy of this senior class started exactly one year ago,” said the high-spirited Potter, who had two tackles for losses and one pass break-up against Clemson. “We learned from what the previous seniors did and did not do. We got together before Coach Pelini ever got here and agreed that we wanted to get back to physical football and be remembered as the class that rebuilt the foundation and got this big ship turned around and going in the right direction again. We set the goals we wanted to accomplish early, and we stuck with them, even when things didn’t always go our way.
“It all started in winter conditioning with Coach Dobson. He has a unique way of teaching the physicality of football,” Potter said. “He’s been a blessing for everyone on this team because he changed the environment in the weight room, and I can’t tell you how much that translates on the field. We definitely all benefited from this new coaching staff, technique-wise and otherwise. But it all started in the strength and conditioning program. We all wish we could have had this kind of leadership for four or five years instead of just one.”
As one who bettered several of Johnny Rodgers’ receiving records, Swift credits Dobson’s focus on flexibility over strength as pivotal. “It was a completely different way to go about strength training,” he said. “It starts with an attitude. I’ve maybe weighed more and been stronger, but I’m more flexible and in the best condition I’ve ever been in. That was a factor for most of us in winning six of our last seven games.”
Ganz always has considered himself to be tough, but Dobson made him tougher. “We all worked hard to get better,” he said. “Coach Dobson’s style of leadership is so motivating. We worked our tails off, but for good reason. We were all sick of hearing how Nebraska isn’t physical anymore, isn’t tough anymore and isn’t passionate anymore. So we all came together in winter conditioning to prove a point. We kept going as hard as ever in spring ball and then continued that mindset into fall camp. Our conditioning definitely paid off through the season.”
The ultimate result was “Nebraska becoming more like Nebraska again,” said Steinkuhler, the “quiet warrior” son of former Husker Outland Trophy winner Dean Steinkuhler and older brother of freshman defensive lineman Baker Steinkuhler.
Steinkuhler: Blackshirts Well Worth Waiting For
“Coach Dobson knows how to make a workout challenging,” Steinkuhler said. “We got better as the season wore on and played our best defensive game – by far – in the Gator Bowl. I’m glad Coach Pelini waited so long to hand out Blackshirts. No question that we had to earn them. That’s the only way it should be, and it’s the only way it will be from now on.”
Potter and Steinkuhler had to “get on” their defensive teammates during Saturday’s Gator Bowl practice in Jacksonville when Bo and his brother, defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, were still in Youngstown, Ohio, for their father’s funeral.
“We got a little undisciplined when they weren’t there,” Potter said. “Our thoughts and prayers were with them, but we had to buckle down and get to work. The coaches had our backs all year, and this was one time when we had to have theirs. When we put AP (for Anthony Pelini) on our helmets, it was out of respect for the entire Pelini family. We sent flowers and our condolences to Ohio, and we thought this was another way we could celebrate his father’s life.”
The strength to overcome, as usual, was acquired. “We learned a lot about ourselves, and the coaches learned a lot about themselves when everything fell apart in the Missouri game,” Potter said. “We all took a step back and recommitted ourselves to each other. That never changed, not even when things blew up on us again in the first quarter at Oklahoma. We all bought in to the coaching, the training, the conditioning, the unity – everything – and it paid off.”
Swift attributes the Huskers’ transformation to “Coach Pelini and his entire staff. They’ve been very energetic since day one,” he said. “They’re always working their tails off and getting us to work our tails off, too. We hadn’t been around something like that in a long time. When we simplified everything after the Missouri game, it was the turning point of the season. These guys can coach. I don’t think our production will go down, even though we have some very big shoes to fill. Everybody will be focusing in on the quarterback battle, but we have some well-rounded receivers who can block and catch just as well as Todd (Peterson) and me.”
Senior ’09 leaders will be crucial, and if they’re like ‘08’s captains, they will expect greater success to emerge from the program’s more solidified base.
Potter: Being a Captain Second to No Other Honor
“I wouldn’t trade being a captain or being on the Unity Council for a first-team All-America honor,” Potter said. “Nothing’s more important than having the trust of your teammates. Selecting captains after the season was a great idea. We all loved the way Coach Pelini handled everything all season long. The most special feeling of all was when he decided to make all 21 seniors captains for the Colorado game. We’d been through a lot over the last four or five years, but walking out there for our last game together, holding hands down the tunnel and on to the field . . . that was just something we’ll never forget.”
Such moments are priceless, and Potter sees that influencing Suh’s decision of whether to declare for the NFL draft or come back for one final year. “He’s a special talent, a special player and a special person,” Potter said. “His family is so dedicated to academics. It goes beyond football and money.”
The last time Nebraska had two sure-fire, first-round NFL draft choices faced with the same decision, defensive linemen Grant Wistrom and Jason Peter surprised then coach and now athletic director Tom Osborne by deciding to return for their senior season in ‘97. Wistrom and Peter already had won national championships in ’94 and ’95 and felt the ’96 season created “unfinished business.”
“They really set the tone for that ‘97 team,” Osborne said, adding that the talent level on that team was “obviously pretty good, but the dedication and commitment was exceptional.”
Osborne, like Pelini, would be the last to try and convince Suh to stay at Nebraska, if the first-team All-Big 12 defensive lineman felt his circumstances were right for the NFL.
The Huskers’ four captains are equally respectful and supportive of whatever decision Suh will make. “He might go, but I think he’ll stay,” Steinkuhler said. “He’s really grown as a leader and has an opportunity to keep growing and become an even better player – and a better leader – than he is now.”
In one year, Suh and his teammates have seen the differences between leadership styles.
“I loved being a captain with Nate, Zach and Ty,” Ganz said. “We reinforced each other all season long, and we had plenty of others right in there with us, including Suh. We all had to come together and make sure that the same cancerous attitude didn’t eat our football team up again.
“All of us, players and coaches alike, want what’s best for Suh,” Ganz said, adding that regardless of his decision, “this program’s back on a solid foundation, and it will continue to take everyone pulling in the same direction, every day, year-round.”
In college football, that’s never going to change.
Maybe that’s why even the most seasoned pros relish their college experience the most.