LINCOLN — Nebraska center Dylan Utter snuck away for a moment in late August to call his mom. He told her he’d been elected captain by his teammates.
A walk-on from Papillion who got a scholarship, became a starter, and is now a captain. Of all the calls between them, this one might have been the best.
“The first two years, most of those calls were me not wanting to play anymore,” Utter told reporters.
But he didn’t quit. He was part of a 2012 walk-on class that was one of the most accomplished in years at Nebraska. Andy Janovich, Brandon Reilly, Ross Dzuris, Ryker Fyfe, Sam Foltz. Utter leaned on that group, they leaned on him, and they’re here, grown men, native football sons and leaders.
“One thing that’s good about Nebraska is that, even though you’re a walk-on, you’re part of the team,” Utter said. “You’re not really seeing yourself as a walk-on but another guy on the team. It kinda helps us get through.”
Utter’s story is one Husker football has to sell to in-state kids whom NU coaches don’t think warrant a scholarship offer.
With rising tuition, it becomes a harder and harder pitch.
Wyoming coach Craig Bohl won’t make it any easier on the Huskers, either.
Bohl is perhaps the biggest threat yet to Nebraska’s walk-on program. Nebraska kids helped build his program at North Dakota State — they’ve done the same for South Dakota State — and he intends to build a pipeline into Nebraska now that he’s in Laramie.
There are six Nebraskans on Wyoming’s roster now — seven if you include Ja’Chai Baker, who grew up in Omaha but graduated from Council Bluffs Lewis Central. Two of those Nebraskans, Aurora’s Gavin Rush and Bellevue West wideout C.J. Johnson, played a lot in Wyoming’s season opener. Another Nebraskan, Norfolk Catholic’s David Engelhaupt, was committed to the Cowboys until the last week of the 2016 recruiting cycle, when NU offered a scholarship and flipped him.
“We’ve always felt like there’s good football players in the state of Nebraska,” Bohl said this week. “When we first got here, we went back and did a lot of research on when the Cowboys were really talented, and during that time there was a strong presence of Nebraska high school players on the squad. And when we first got here, there were zero players on our squad from the state of Nebraska.”
So Wyoming is building its roster again with Nebraska kids, specifically linemen. The Cowboys have offers out to Gretna’s Patrick Arnold, Kearney’s Rudy Stofer and Lincoln East’s Chris Walker, among others.
Any one of those guys could become that next Utter or Dzuris at Nebraska. Or maybe they end up in Laramie.
And this is where some fans — especially the younger ones — think “so what?” They see Nebraska has recruited three solid offensive line classes in a row and is working on a fourth. They see the Huskers attracting five-star prospects for official visits and rightly appreciate the work Mike Riley, Ryan Gunderson and Co. are putting into building the best, most talented roster they can. Nebraska is flexing its alpha recruiting muscle, and it needs to, since the rest of the Big Ten is acquiring better talent, too.
But there’s a reason Riley has kept Nebraska’s roster so large. He embraces the other end of the recruiting spectrum, too. He had to court walk-ons at Oregon State and, considering there are nine former walk-ons on scholarship now, he believes in them at Nebraska.
“We have talked about that more here in the last couple of months than ever before,” Riley said, “because I think it was more prevalent back in the day, when more guys would make the choice to walk on here than possibly in the last decade or more.”
The coach gets it. NU needs good walk-ons. Some native Nebraskans become great players. And there’s real proof, too.
Cleveland.com published an analysis this week of NFL rosters, and the states that produce the most players. Not surprisingly, California, Florida and Texas lead the way.
Fourteen players who were born in Nebraska are on current NFL rosters. Not that many, right?
Well, it’s more than Kentucky (13), Arkansas (12), Oregon (12) and Iowa (12). It’s one fewer than Kansas and Colorado, and two fewer than Oklahoma and Indiana.
Each of those states has at least one million more people than Nebraska. The two states closest to Nebraska in population — New Mexico and West Virginia — have produced three players each. What does that tell you?
Here’s something I know: Nebraskans are modest and self-deprecating to a fault, and there is always this tendency to underrate the caliber of high school football in this state. I won’t pretend that Omaha is producing the same number of great football players that it did when I was growing up in the late 1980s and 1990s, but the state still does far better than its population would suggest. North Dakota State and South Dakota State have rocketed to the top of the FCS by taking the guys who once walked on at Nebraska.
For each Trevor Roach — who walked on at NU and is now with the Bengals — there will be a Nick DeLuca, a Millard North graduate who’s a senior at North Dakota State and a likely 2017 NFL draft pick. Watch DeLuca when NDSU plays at Iowa on Sept. 17. You’ll see.
Add Wyoming to the mix.
Riley wants to drill down deeper into identifying the best walk-on prospects around the state.
“What we have talked about doing is continuing to get an earlier feel of who these guys are,” he said. “And by earlier, I am talking sophomore (year) and be able to track that. Of course we want to be right on every guy that we scholarship that is local, but we also want to be ahead of the game on who that next group might be that we would really like to still have come here. And then it becomes from there kind of a personal choice for them.”
And, again, I get it: Nebraska would much rather be competing with Alabama, Texas and UCLA for recruits than Wyoming, SDSU and NDSU. NU can’t turn in 50th-ranked recruiting classes and expect to win the Big Ten.
But here’s something else I know: We overrate how easily players from all over the nation will fit in at Nebraska. Since the 2013 recruiting class, five recruits left before their first week of fall classes was finished. Sixteen freshmen — including four wideouts from Louisiana, Ohio and California — lasted two seasons or fewer.
So getting the best walk-ons — convincing them that the walk-on experience is worth it, and that players will get just as fair of a shake to play as scholarship guys — is a necessary piece of the puzzle. Nebraska has to recruit the alpha and omega of the recruiting spectrum.
Sometimes, the omega becomes the alpha. Like Utter.
Or Janovich. You know, the guy who scored a touchdown in his first NFL game Thursday night, a little more than four years after NU persuaded him to walk on ... instead of playing at Division II Nebraska-Kearney.