Hiring of Scott Frost brings rekindled hope to boost Husker walk-on program

Bellevue West coach Michael Huffman says college is too expensive to pass on other scholarship offers to walk-on at Nebraska. Programs like the South Dakota schools have been kind to the Thunderbird players, including Jevyon Ducker, who has an offer from South Dakota State.

Ryan Bena considers himself a Nebraska fan, and the Omaha Creighton Prep junior offensive lineman would love to play college football someday.

But if it came down to a scholarship from a smaller program — South Dakota and South Dakota State are showing interest in the All-Nebraska first-teamer — or walking on with his childhood team, he already knows his answer. Take the money.

“It would help pay for your school,” Bena said. “And in the long run, it would be better for myself.”

High school coaches have seen this opinion become more popular as Nebraska’s national power status has eroded. Omaha North coach Larry Martin recalls Husker walk-on classes numbering in the 40s and 50s in the 1990s before struggling to crack 20 in recent years. Bellevue West coach Michael Huffman sees logos of other Power Five schools all over the hallways at his school.

“We have a bunch of Alabama fans running around this building,” Huffman said. “Well, why? Because they’re hot. They win. So you gotta get Nebraska back into that.”

With the hiring of Scott Frost last weekend, there is rekindled hope for a walk-on resurgence among many in-state prep players and coaches. It might not happen right away, but playing for a former local star quarterback is appealing. So is being part of an offense that led the nation in scoring this season at Central Florida and contributing to a defense that promotes aggressive playmaking.

Most of all, they say, winning games would make the sacrifice worth it.

“I’m looking forward to trying to build the walk-on program and make it what it was before,” Frost said during his introductory press conference. “When you have a bunch of kids from the state of Nebraska that are in this program, those are the type of players that would bleed for this place and are going to work hard to make this work. Guys that are really pulling for Nebraska.

“When I was growing up, every kid in the state of Nebraska dreamed about running out here on this stadium, on this field, wearing a red ‘N’ on their helmet.”

Those players still exist. Eight Nebraskans walked on in the Class of 2017. In August, four former walk-ons earned scholarships in tight end Tyler Hoppes (Lincoln Southwest), fullback Luke McNitt (Kearney), offensive lineman Cole Conrad (Fremont Bergan) and tight end Connor Ketter (Norfolk Catholic). Other similar success stories recently include offensive lineman Dylan Utter (Papillion-La Vista), defensive end Ross Dzuris (Plattsmouth), punter Sam Foltz (Grand Island), receiver Brandon Reilly (Lincoln Southwest) and fullback Andy Janovich (Gretna).

Frost’s hire also prompted redshirt freshman linebacker Ben Stille — an Ashland-Greenwood grad — to tweet an exhortation to fellow Nebraska high school players that “we need all of you guys to help turn this program around.” It has been retweeted more than 1,500 times and liked more than 10,000.

But the walk-on draw isn’t as strong as it used to be, Bellevue West senior lineman AJ Forbes said. He has offers to schools like Air Force and Northwest Missouri State as well as a preferred walk-on opportunity from Iowa. Nebraska? “It could be an option,” he said, “but I’m keeping my options open.”

Huffman, the Bellevue West coach, is a Husker fan. He pays for a subscription to an online message board and says he hasn’t missed a game in his life. But if the coach’s young son grows up to have the choice, he’ll advise him to take the scholarship to another school.

The bottom line is the bottom line, he said. College is far more expensive now than 20 years ago. The financial debt isn’t worth it.

“My son’s not walking on anywhere because I don’t want him to be broke his whole life,” Huffman said. “It’s a lot harder than people really think it is. My wife is 37 years old and still paying student loans.”

Huffman sees the same choices made within his program. The South Dakota programs and Northwest Missouri State have been good to his Bellevue West players, offering the chance for a paid education.

But for Nebraska to have a chance at some of these same guys, he said, it needs to make itself relevant again. Bellevue West sophomore running back Jevyon Ducker, for example, has an SDSU offer and is from a family of Iowa fans. But he often wears Oregon gear because he loves the offense.

That could be Husker apparel if Frost’s vision comes to fruition.

“It really brings a new excitement back into Nebraska,” Bena said. “There’s lots of hope coming back.” 

If given the options, should Nebraska high school athletes walk on at NU or take a scholarship elsewhere?

With the hiring of Scott Frost, there's rekindled hope for a walk-on resurgence at Nebraska. But with the expenses students face, Bellevue West coach Michael Huffman said taking the money is the better choice. What do you think high school athletes in the state should do?

You voted:

Evan Bland covers Nebraska football, baseball and other sports for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @EvanBlandOWH.

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