Towson's Nieberlein puts focus on line and beyond Tigers tackle keeps offense on the move

September 21, 1993|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Staff Writer

As someone who has spent his football life on the offensive line, Karl Nieberlein has grown accustomed to watching faster, flashier teammates get more recognition.

Nieberlein, Towson State's 6-foot-5, 285-pound senior left tackle, seldom gets into the end zone, and he won't find his name among statistical leaders. That never has been a problem. Listen to him describe a score:

"I love pulling on the counter play. You know that linebacker has to step up and meet you. It's a big collision, the kind you can hear on the sideline," he says with a grin. "It's the most satisfying thing to knock that linebacker on his back and see your running back run by him. I think it's probably better than any drug you could do. If you could put the sensation of that hit in a bottle, I think you could be a rich man."

Judging by the NFL scouts who keep showing up at the Tigers' games and practices, Nieberlein could become a rich man next year.

Initially drawn last year to check out dynamic running back Tony Vinson, scouts did double-takes while watching Nieberlein. They noticed a 21-year-old junior with remarkably quick feet for someone pushing 300 pounds. They liked his pass blocking. They also liked the way he ran downfield to inflict damage on someone else after flattening his first assignment.

Nieberlein is no secret around here. After successful, four-year runs in basketball and football at Mount St. Joseph High School, he has been a fixture on the offensive line at Towson State for four seasons.

On Saturday against Charleston Southern, Nieberlein will make his 35th consecutive start. He will do his part to spark an offense that is averaging 37 points and 467 yards and has the Tigers off to their first 2-0 start in seven seasons.

Although Nieberlein's contribution sometimes gets lost among highlight reels focusing on players such as Vinson, quarterback Dan Crowley and wide receiver Mark Orlando, second-year head coach Gordy Combs will not underestimate Nieberlein's worth to the Tigers.

"Karl has the potential to be the best lineman who has ever played here," said Combs, who has seen just about every candidate during 20 years of coaching at Towson State. "He has size, quickness, he changes direction well, he plays with the same intensity level on every play and he has the maturity to handle his success."

College success came gradually for Nieberlein, although the pressure to perform was almost immediate. After sitting out his first year, injuries to the Tigers' line pressed Nieberlein into service the next season. For the next two years, he played right tackle. Last year, Combs, impressed by Nieberlein's pass-blocking skills, shifted him to left tackle to protect Crowley's blind side.

The strategy worked. Crowley was sacked only nine times in 10 games and led the Tigers to a 5-5 record by throwing for 2,322 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has not been sacked this year and has passed for 341 yards and five touchdowns.

Nieberlein is quick to deflect praise to his fellow linemen. He rooms with guard Andy Rehkemper and tackle John Loch, part of what Nieberlein calls "our big family," and he refuses to get caught up in the attention he's receiving.

"It gets distracting at times, but I try to keep a level head about it. If I get somewhat big-headed, the guys will put me in my place," he said."We've always been the type of group where nobody is better than anybody else."

In Nieberlein's case, he has a chance to fare better than any of his four, older brothers, who form some pretty select company.

By the time Karl got to St. Joe, Kirk, Rob, Chris and Gene Nieberlein Jr. had already enjoyed fine football and basketball careers there. Gene played football at Indiana for two years before playing basketball at Rutgers. Chris also played basketball at Rutgers. Rob played basketball at George Mason. Kirk, the closest in age to Karl, played football at Towson State in the mid-1980s.

Karl didn't play football until the ninth grade because he was always too big to make the weight limits in recreation football. As a freshman, he was 6-2, 190, and thinking more about playing basketball in college. Kirk persuaded him to concentrate on football. Problem was, college recruiters looking for linemen were skeptical about Karl because he weighed only 220 pounds as a senior. Thanks to a weight training program, Nieberlein has put on an average of 15 pounds a year since signing with Towson State.

For now, Nieberlein keeps his sights on helping Towson to its first postseason appearance since 1986, the Tigers' last winning season.

"I like to think of myself as someone who's always hustling, always looking for a second block. The second or third block is what decides whether it's going to be a touchdown or a 10-yard run," he said.

"It [pro ball] has always been a goal of mine. Right now, I just want to have a good season and do what's best for this team on every play. Every play is the most important one."

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