Technically, sophomore defensive tackle Jared Crick started competing for a starting job before one was even up for grabs.
During Nebraska's practices in preparation for the Gator Bowl down in Jacksonville, Fla., it finally hit Crick for the first time that he was about to play his last game with senior starter Ty Steinkuhler. At that point, he also realized his window of opportunity was just about to open up.
Immediately following Nebraska's Gator Bowl win over Clemson, the Cozad native has made it his top priority to make sure the Huskers don't miss a beat this season on the defensive line with Steinkuhler's departure. In fact, he's devoted his entire offseason to it.
By stepping up his work in the weight room and winter conditioning as well as taking on a more vocal leadership role, Crick has all but solidified himself a spot as NU's starting defensive tackle next to senior Ndamukong Suh.
"After the Gator Bowl we all knew Stein was going to leave, and we all knew there was a spot open," Crick said. "I just went into the offseason prepared to work my absolute hardest to get in the front of the line. Just take more of a leadership role than in my past years. I think just going in with the mindset of being a better leader, and it turned out I had a great winter."
Crick's evolution this offseason certainly hasn't gone unnoticed by his coaches and teammates, either.
During Nebraska's pre-spring press conference, Suh dropped Crick's name on two separate occasions on his own while talking about players he's been impressed with during winter conditioning.
"I think he has a good grasp of what he has to do to take over that spot," Suh said. "I've watched him throughout the winter conditioning, he's definitely stepped up as in his work ethic. He's definitely kind of moved his way out of the middle of the pack when we're going through drills and coming to the front and really taking control.
"When we went through Skills and Drill and coaches' runs, he was at the front of the line and pushing and helping other guys who are kind of struggling, which is something I respect. I mean, he's only a redshirt sophomore coming in this season, so he's definitely coming in and guys are starting to look up to him because he's going to be put in a position to where he's got a chance to start."
Crick played in nine games last year as one of Suh and Steinkuhler's primary backups, registering just two tackles and a pass break-up statistically. That's what makes his sudden jump to the forefront especially surprising this spring.
Though he's still relatively inexperienced as far as playing time goes, Crick has taken on the attitude of a seasoned vet in his work ethic and leadership, which is something that's undoubtedly caught the eye of his coaches.
Defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, who works primarily with the defensive line the individual position portions of practices, said that while Crick still has a way to go in his technique and learning the position, he sees big things in the sophomore's near future.
"He's rusty, and I'm on him," Pelini said. "He's probably going to hate me by the end of spring. I want him to be a great player, and I think he can be. I'm just on him incessantly every day. I'm pressuring him all the time. He shows inexperience at times, but he's got great potential.
On the surface, Crick and his 6-foot-6, 285-pound frame definitely look the part of the bulldozing, line-clogging defensive tackle. However, he said he's put an emphasis on improving his speed and quickness off the line to make him a more well-rounded player - likely mostly due to Pelini's prodding.
He said he could've put on much more weight than the 5 pounds of muscle he added over the winter, but instead focused his workouts on running and endurance.
Crick knows a golden opportunity awaits him this season, as he has the chance to potentially be a three-year starter on the defensive line if he continues to work as hard as he has been this winter and spring.
"During the season, I never thought about football with Stein gone," Crick said. "Then that last game rolls around, and I'm like, Stein's going to be gone. I've got to step it up."
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