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Before Suh became a hero (and a hamburger) in Detroit, he reached deity status at Nebraska. He thrived under the tutelage of brothers Bo and Carl Pelini, the Cornhuskers' coach and defensive coordinator, respectively, who both arrived after Suh's sophomore season. "He was used to more of a penetration system," Carl says. "I said to him, 'Big man, I can get any guard to ride upfield with you, but I can't teach him to block you no matter how much I work on it.' He became more about defeating blocks to make plays. It became a craft. He was always looking for an edge, studying opponents, almost to where it would drive you crazy."
After deciding to stay at Nebraska for his senior year, Suh kept pestering Carl in the off-season. "He didn't want to just talk about tackle play," Carl says. "He wanted me to explain the defense, the concepts, where the linebackers, safeties and corners fit. He thought about the overall picture and scheme. He wanted to know why. The scouts started coming around and asking me, 'Will he be a good pro?' I'd say, 'He already is.'"
And he continued to be, exploding into the NFL as the No. 2 pick in 2010, tearing through blockers for 10 sacks and earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. But Suh's rugged style has presented the NFL with a conundrum at a time when player safety is a priority. The league's gatekeepers have fined him three times already (for a total of $42,500) for hits on quarterbacks, and he has drawn a number of personal foul penalties. The first fine came last year for a hit on the Browns' Jake Delhomme in the preseason, when Suh yanked at Delhomme's helmet as if it were a stubborn bottle top. The second infraction, during the 2010 regular season, was against the Bears' Jay Cutler, who was racing downfield when Suh chased him down, unleashing a forearm that launched Cutler into the turf. In the first preseason game this year Suh grabbed Bengals rookie Andy Dalton high and slammed him to the ground.
Against Dallas, Suh was penalized for roughing Tony Romo. On a third-quarter play, he came in unimpeded on a stunt and decked Romo with a lefthanded blow to the face mask just as the QB released. The penalty negated a third-down incompletion and kept alive a drive that led to Dallas's final points. Suh was so angry with the call that he kicked over a trash can on the sideline.
"The Delhomme play, I agreed with [the fine]—my mistake," he says. "[But] I feel like I make it tough on officials to officiate against me because I'm attacking. Nobody's seen a specimen like myself. I hate to say it that way, but it kind of is that way. When you combine speed and power, things are going to look bad when I hit somebody."
The league says it is not singling him out. "We have not talked to Suh or the team," spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail. "We review [all] plays and hold players accountable for their actions during those plays."
Such conversations about Suh's physical style date back to his schoolyard days playing soccer in Portland, Ore. Bigger and stronger than his peers, he learned early that he could send opponents tumbling with a hip check—or make their jaws drop with his power. "The way I found out was in my elementary years playing soccer and shooting at the goal and seeing the goal shatter, and knocking kids down," he says.
Says his mother, Bernadette, "I had to travel with a birth certificate because they would question whether he was the right age for the team he was on. He was so much bigger than the other kids, and he was aggressive."
Suh, 24, insists he won't change his approach. He also says he won't consider himself a dirty player unless his mother does. "I don't see him as a dirty player, and I'm not sure what people mean when they say he is," Bernadette says. "It bothers me because from what little I know about the game, he wants to make sure he makes plays—and that plays aren't made on him."
Says Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who has coached in the NFL since 1982, "The problem with the league is, they've never seen a defensive tackle like this. He's the best football player at that position I've ever seen."