LINCOLN — Tyler Hoppes never saw the move as a gamble, even though he played as a true freshman at Wayne State and was setting the stage for a successful career as a tight end with the NCAA Division II Wildcats.
Part of him wanted to come back home to Lincoln. And part of him wanted that chance to play major college football at Nebraska.
“I wanted to try here,” he said. “I gave D-II a chance, and if I couldn’t make it here, I couldn’t. So I just wanted to try it out.”
That was between the 2013 and ’14 seasons, and with acknowledgment that nothing would be easy and that he’d surrender a scholarship. What followed was a redshirt year, some brief time at defensive end and another season without seeing the field.
But last fall offered some promise, and the departure of Cethan Carter, Sam Cotton and Trey Foster suddenly has opened the door. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf says Hoppes, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior, “probably has an edge there” after a week of spring practice.
“I couldn’t really think of this, in my wildest dreams,” Hoppes said.
Hoppes played with Josh Banderas and Brandon Reilly at Lincoln Southwest but signed with Wayne State when Nebraska initially didn’t show even walk-on interest. Hoppes caught five passes and started one game his freshman season, then went to see Wildcats coach Dan McLaughlin.
McLaughlin, a former Husker graduate assistant, nodded at what he was hearing.
“He was really cool about it,” Hoppes said. “I was talking to a couple (assistant) coaches there and they kind of didn’t understand, but McLaughlin said, ‘Hey, I understand. Go try down at the university. No hard feelings.’ So I left on a good note.”
Nebraska worked Hoppes at defensive end during a redshirt season in 2014, but Hoppes was just content to be a Husker. After Mike Riley took over, Banderas persuaded Hoppes to go see graduate assistant Tavita Thompson, the tight ends coach, about a possible position switch.
“I was talking to Josh and I was like, ‘Hey, I feel more comfortable at tight end,’” Hoppes said. “He said just go talk to the coaches. So I went up to Tavita’s room and he brought me in with open arms. It’s the best thing that could have happened.”
There were still dues to be paid, of course, and Hoppes didn’t see a snap as a sophomore. He inched closer last season working behind the three seniors, but most of his work in 10 games came on special teams.
Now Hoppes needs to take over along with sophomore Matt Snyder at a position where the Husker returnees didn’t have a single catch last season. NU can use fullback Luke McNitt as an H-back, but also is without senior Connor Ketter because of a back injury.
“It’s kind of a different mindset, too, when you’re kind of the guy, you’re taking the first-string reps,” Hoppes said. “You know you have to be there to show out and prove yourself, so it’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
Hoppes said blocking was definitely his weakness a year ago, so now it’s an everyday focus. His route-running also needed work, but he always felt natural catching the football.
Langsdorf said Hoppes runs well, and his work is starting to show with some other duties like pass protection.
“I’ve been impressed with him to this point,” Langsdorf said. “We just need a little more depth in that group.”
What Hoppes always realized with Carter, Cotton and Foster was the value of their experience. Every little tip from them helped in his own development.
That’s what Hoppes and Snyder are trying to give the young tight ends during the spring, even as they try to figure some things out for themselves.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” Hoppes said. “Luckily we’ve got some pretty smart freshman tight ends. We’ve got to help the younger guys get ready for their future, too.”
His own future comes down to the next nine months or so. Nebraska used its tight ends with regularity the last two seasons, but always knew what it was getting. Hoppes and others need to get there.
“We’re hoping to get some two- and three-tight end packages in there,” he said, “but we’ve just got to prove ourselves first.”