August 9, 2009

Paul more focused than ever following suspension

Niles Paul still remembers the sick feeling in his stomach as he ran onto the field for Nebraska's Red-White Spring Game this past April.

While the rest of his Husker teammates were getting ready to cap off four weeks worth of practice with the annual scrimmage, Paul was padless, wearing shorts and jersey, which, at the time, he almost didn't feel he deserved to wear.

The weekend before the final week of spring practice, the junior wide receiver - then 19 years old - was arrested on charges of suspicion of drunken driving, speeding, driving with a suspended license and possessing alcohol as a minor.

Though his charge was eventually reduced to a $150 reckless driving ticket, Paul was suspended for the final week of practice, including the Spring Game. Suddenly, life was put into a completely different perspective.

"It was like having a thing you love so much taken away from you," Paul said Sunday, which happened to be his 20th birthday. "It was painful for me to sit and watch that game. I almost didn't want to be out there because I knew I wasn't playing, but I wanted to support our other wide receivers and to be out there for them."

So Paul swallowed his pride and watched the game from the sidelines. He watched fellow receivers like Chris Brooks and Antonio Bell wow the NU faithful with stellar Spring Game performances.

He stayed all four quarters, mingled with fans and teammates on the field after the game and then walked off the field for the last time until the start of fall camp. It was at that point, however, that Paul's career just might have changed forever.

The Omaha native said he used his mistake as the driving motivation for his entire offseason, working harder during summer conditioning than he ever had before and changing his life off-the-field to fit that of what he considered a role model's life should be.

In many ways, one of the darkest points in Paul's life very well could end up being the best thing to ever happen to him.

"It made (the offseason) a lot more competitive in my mind," Paul said. "I felt like I let a lot of people down: Husker Nation, my parents, my friends. I worked hard. If you ask (strength and conditioning coach James Dobson, I increased dramatically in everything I did, running and strength-wise.

"I've never been this focused before. I'm going out there competing hard. I'm running hard, and I'm making plays."

Paul's refocused attitude and demeanor has definitely been noticed by his teammates.

"When football gets taken away from you, it puts a lot of things in perspective," senior receiver Menelik Holt said. "For Niles to put in all that hard work and make the plays that he made in spring practice, and then get the game taken away from him, I think that definitely hurt him. It hurt us that he wasn't on the field with us. He's like our brother. I think he's responded the best way anybody can."

So far, Holt appears to be right on about Paul's response to the recent events. Nebraska receivers coach Ted Gilmore said the starting 'Z' receiver spot is Paul's to lose, even with him missing the final week of the spring.

Fitting in with the leadership role he's tried to assume with Nebraska's young receiving corps, Paul said he's used his incident as an example for his younger teammates of what can happen with just one case of bad judgment.

"Me and (sophomore Brandon Kinnie) became real good friends over the summer, and he asked me about it - all the new receivers asked me about my situation," Paul said. "I told them just learn from it. I made a mistake. I don't drink often, and when I did drink, I got in trouble. Just learn from it. There's a microscope on us. We're here to play ball. Just go to school and play ball."

It's been a rollercoaster of an offseason for Paul, but it seems that he's taken the lows in stride and used them to better himself as a player and, more importantly, a person. Now, his focus is solely on football, just how he wants it to be.

"I look at myself, like Coach Gilmore told me at the end of spring, it's my spot to lose," Paul said. "I set myself up, and I was one of the only receivers that set themselves to be the No. 1 receiver. I'm taking what Coach Gilmore told me to heart. I'm working hard, trying to keep my spot. I'm not going to let this chance slip away."

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