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Mick Stoltenberg growing into key piece for Nebraska's defense

Mick Stoltenberg is not a household name outside of Lincoln, Nebraska. He might not be all that more recognizable at the end of the 2017 season. But for Bob Diaco’s first season as Cornhuskers defensive coordinator to be a success, no piece of the puzzle will be more important in 2017 than Stoltenberg.

The junior defensive lineman has stacked on somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 pounds since coming to campus three years ago. He added almost a third of that weight in the last couple months, since he learned that Diaco would be searching for a big body to anchor his 3-4 defense at nose tackle. Stoltenberg’s combination of experience and size make him the front-runner this spring for a crucial position where bigger is almost always better.

“That’s definitely something I’ve been working on,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Lincoln this past week. “I can hopefully gain maybe a little bit more before next fall. Obviously you lose weight during the season, so the heavier I can start, probably the better, while obviously keeping my athleticism in there, too.”

The 6-foot-5 Nebraska native checked into spring ball at more than 300 pounds. Diaco’s best defenses at previous stops have featured nose tackles who go underappreciated despite being nearly impossible to miss.

The nose tackle’s job in Diaco’s scheme is to occupy as many gaps and opposing linemen as possible, clearing the path for the linebackers behind him to clean up with tackles. At its best, this approach has created defenses good enough to propel national championship bids. Diaco’s Notre Dame defense in 2012 – when the Irish lost to Alabama in the BCS Championship -- allowed 105 rushing yards and 12.8 points per game. Linebacker Manti Te’o was the team's star on defense, but big man Louis Nix did yeoman’s work in front of him to set the group’s foundation. Without a strong presence in the middle of the defensive line, it is more difficult to stop the run in a 3-4 scheme.

Diaco told reporters that he was “super, super excited” about what he’s seen from his new team during the first week of spring practice.

“There’s enough brain power and fast action through diagnosis; I know that’s not going to be a limitation,” Diaco said. “Conditioning is built up so they can go hard long, and I’m pleased with the tangible skill of the defensive players. We can definitely get our work done.”

Nebraska’s defense, which must replace its top three tacklers from a year ago, posted middle-of-the-pack stats against the run in the Big Ten last fall. The Blackshirts gave up an average of 147.8 yards per game on the ground, but struggled in that department while losing three of their last five games. They gave up 244 yards per game in losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Tennessee.

Stoltenberg played in 12 games last season, finishing with 25 tackles and 1.5 sacks. His numbers don’t necessarily have to grow as much as his body has this offseason, but the junior will have to take on an outsized role in the Cornhuskers defense to help smooth the transition to a new defensive style.