Steven M. Sipple: NU doesn’t exactly scrimp on nutrition, and players say it’s key component

Nebraska tight end Jack Stoll (86) runs with the ball after escaping a tackle attempt from Wisconsin’s safety Reggie Pearson (2) at Memorial Stadium in 2019.

If Jack Stoll at any point in his college career took for granted the excellent meals he received as a Nebraska student-athlete, he doesn’t now. 

“It’s a lot easier going in there (to the NU training table) instead of grilling chicken every day,” says the former Husker tight end, who’s now in training in hopes of being drafted by an NFL team. “It’s really just a convenience. (NU director of nutrition) Dave Ellis did a great job of making sure food was ready for us, always available. Just the strict convenience aspect, you’ve got to get used to it when you don’t have it waiting there for you. As soon as you don’t have it, you learn to appreciate it even more.”

Sometimes it might get lost on fans just how well Nebraska student-athletes are fed. To be sure, Husker defensive line coach Tony Tuioti told the Journal Star recently he feels NU takes its nutrition program to a level that gives it an advantage over most football programs. His comment catches your attention because those sorts of advantages have gotten fewer and farther between. Every advantage is critical.

Former Nebraska corner Dicaprio Bootle — who made 32 straight collegiate starts, including 12 last year in his final season — takes his nutrition seriously, and clearly appreciated the setup at NU. 

“It’s fuel,” he says. “We have great people down there working at the training table, working really hard to make sure we have everything we need. It’s basically the fuel that you need to go throughout the day. You wake up in the morning and the first thing you have to do is check in at the training table. Guys get in trouble if they don’t go to the training table because that’s the fuel you need to make yourself better as an athlete.

“I mean, if you had a sports car, you wouldn’t put just regular gas in it. You put supreme fuel in it. That’s kind of what the training table offers. We’re elite athletes, we need elite food, elite nutrition, all of that. We just make sure we put the right fuel in our engines to take us through the day.”

We could all benefit from that reminder, right? How many of us fly out the door in the morning with maybe a granola bar and some coffee? That’s not the worst combination, by the way. Earlier this week, I gobbled down a soft tortilla shell (nothing in it) as I raced to my truck to get to work on time. Of course, I didn’t have 23 NFL scouts waiting to see if I could run a sub-4.4-second time in the 40-yard dash, as was the case Tuesday for Bootle.

By the way, he ran a :04.38. Jet fuel clearly helps. Which is why Nebraska doesn’t exactly scrimp on costs in this area. According to Athletic Department budget numbers, the Husker football program during the 2020 fiscal year spent $1.904 million on “student-athlete meals (non-travel).” The total includes staff salaries.

In 2017, before Scott Frost took over as Nebraska’s head coach and before Ellis came to NU, the football program spent $392,842 in this area. 

All sports combined, Nebraska’s budget for student-athlete meals was $4.531 million in fiscal 2020 compared with $1.338 million in fiscal 2017. 

“I really believe nutrition is huge in the development of defensive linemen,” Tuioti says. “I think that’s the difference. If you really think about it, everybody has weights. Everybody lifts. Everybody runs. But not everybody spends the same amount of money on the nutrition part. So what you put into their body is the big difference. That’s why certain teams are built a different way than others.” 

OK, let be clear on something: College kids, even big-time athletes, sometimes cheat a bit on their diets. Former Nebraska running back Dedrick Mills admits to eating five Popeyes chicken sandwiches in one sitting. 

“I was hungry,” he says with a smile. “The way it tastes, it was too good. And it’s a chicken sandwich I’d never had.” 

Hey, Mills is human. Eating can be a fun adventure. It can be comforting. But he’s also an elite athlete and therefore must be mindful of the food he puts into his 5-foot-11, 220-pound frame. Now that he’s moved on from NU to chase his NFL dream, he says that no longer having the training table is a “huge adjustment.” 

Former Nebraska offensive lineman Brenden Jaimes echoed those sentiments, emphasizing the importance of making meals for himself instead of turning to fast food to help feed his 6-6, 300-pound frame. 

“Luckily, my parents are around,” he says. “They’ve been really helpful with that, you know, getting groceries I need and being able to provide for me. I’m grateful for them. But doing a lot on my own has been different. Not having the training table readily available, it’s been a little difficult. But it’s not anything I can’t handle.

“I think this is the leanest, strongest, fastest that I’ve ever been.”

That’s the idea. Five Popeyes chicken sandwiches generally aren’t, not in his world.