For seniors, pride comes knowing Huskers have bright future because of them
LINCOLN — Mick Stoltenberg didn’t realize the cold number attached to his remaining time as a Husker until Scott Frost brought it up during a team meeting Monday.
In moments like those, the senior can see his college career flash before his eyes. Like most of his classmates, he was a Bo Pelini recruit who rose through the ranks under Mike Riley. Now, as Nebraska closes out a down-and-up first season under Scott Frost, excuse him if he takes a beat Saturday to soak in a “bittersweet” moment or two before his final home game.
“We get a big opportunity this weekend,” said the defensive lineman from Gretna. “Yet it’s the last time we get to play in this stadium.”
As emotional as it will be for 19 Nebraska seniors, none have been more physically, mentally and vocally invested in the day-by-day process than the the three in-state co-captains of Stoltenberg and former Lincoln Southeast teammates Jerald Foster and Luke Gifford.
All three overcame serious injuries during their careers. All three cycled through position coaches. All three made sure the Frost era began with the full backing of Nebraska’s senior class.
“We took it upon ourselves to not be the problem,” said Foster, the starting left guard. “We took it upon ourselves to be the solution and really to push forward.”
Their impacts are obvious. The deep voice of Stoltenberg imploring teammates to practice well as he runs up and down a drill line during warmups. Foster setting an emotional tone, whether that’s making jokes or speaking to reporters after a loss when no one else wants to. The linebacker Gifford inspiring others as he worked back from a hip injury that kept him out for most of the offseason.
When Frost and his staff arrived, they floated the idea of no permanent captains in their first year. But players chose the lifelong Nebraskans — along with New Orleans native and record-breaking receiver Stanley Morgan — to represent the team all season.
“They grew up watching Husker football,” senior defensive lineman Peyton Newell said. “You couldn’t ask for a better core group of leaders. Nebraska is the only team they’ve followed.”
The captains wanted to be more involved. Even as Stoltenberg missed multiple games rehabbing from a procedure on his knee, he checked in with teammates about their classes and other responsibilities. He wanted to know about any player indiscretions before the coaches did. Any concerns the Huskers had went through their captains and, if necessary, to the staff.
Junior cornerback Lamar Jackson said the senior leaders busted up cliques that may have formed last season and “give us no choice but to bond, to be together.” Senior center Tanner Farmer said they lead by example.
“It’s not easy to come here and push a group of guys, without a winning season, to keep practicing hard and keep developing and getting better,” Morgan said. “But these captains have done a great job of doing that.”
Said freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez: “I want them to be known, that they laid the foundation for what we’re about to become.”
Frost said he couldn’t help but be impressed by Stoltenberg’s speech to the team following Saturday’s win over Illinois that challenged NU to finish the season strong with wins over Michigan State and Iowa. It’s a good sign, the coach added, when the seniors are jealous of the younger players who get to stay in the program whose culture they helped create.
“Obviously we still have some work to do this season, but I know this thing’s going up,” Stoltenberg said. “I’m going to be so proud of these guys when it’s a year or two from now and they’re winning tons of games and having a lot of success here.”