If not for Sam Burtch, the most dramatic play of this Nebraska football season might never have happened.
If not for Burtch, Ron Kellogg III might not have gotten the opportunity to heave the Hail Mary pass to Jordan Westerkamp on the final play of the Northwestern game.
Much was made of Ameer Abdullah’s determined 16-yard run with a Kellogg pass to convert a fourth-and-15. And rightly so. If not for Burtch’s presence of mind a few seconds later, however, there might not have been sufficient time on the clock for Kellogg’s touchdown pass.
On first-and-10 at the Nebraska 40-yard line, with time running out, Burtch caught a Kellogg pass for a 7-yard gain, at the end of which, with the Northwestern defender trying to hold him in-bounds, he extended the ball out-of-bounds to stop the clock.
Burtch’s response in that situation was “smart,” Husker receivers coach Rich Fisher said later. “If he doesn’t get out-of-bounds there, they’re rolling the clock and we’re eating time. We’re either going to have to kill it or get up and run a play pretty quick.”
Burtch caught a pass for a 4-yard gain on the next play and after an incomplete pass, intended for Quincy Enunwa in the middle of the field, Kellogg and Westerkamp teamed up.
Had the pass to Enunwa been complete, there might not have been enough time left.
“All those little things, obviously,” said Fisher.
The purpose here is not to revisit the Hail Mary pass except as it illustrates the attention to detail that has allowed Burtch to emerge in this season.
That the sophomore walk-on from Murdock, Neb., has earned his way into the rotation at wide receiver is a surprise to some, and perhaps many. After all, he played in only four games last season and didn’t catch a pass.
Through 10 games this season, he had caught 10 passes for 148 yards and three touchdowns – the first catch of his Husker career was good for 26 yards and a touchdown. His first career start came against Michigan State, and he responded with five catches for 86 yards and a touchdown. But numbers don’t tell his story. And neither does the play against Northwestern, for that matter.
As with the stories of most walk-ons, Burtch’s is unlikely. He weighed about 170 pounds when he arrived at Nebraska, and he’s 6-foot-3. “I was a string bean,” he said.
“You should see the film when I first came in. People were making fun of me, how awkward I was, considering the technique that I had, just how small I was. It was hard to bear, but it’s good to know I kind of improved quite a bit since then.”
Kind of quite a bit, for sure. Plus, Burtch weighs close to 200 pounds now.
“Funny to turn the film on from, like, last spring ball, or two years ago, and watch that stuff, where we were then,” said junior wide receiver Kenny Bell. “It’s funny to see the maturity, the development of Sam Burtch. He’s gotten a lot better, and, I mean, it’s paying off.
“He’s making huge plays for us on Saturdays.”
Burtch might have been undersized and awkward as far as his technique, but his speed and athleticism were such that Nebraska initially recruited him for track and field. His best events were the 400 and 800 meters. The football team didn’t take an interest until late in the recruiting process.
Late? As he remembers it, his coach at Elmwood-Murdock High, Leigh Schmale, sent film to Nebraska about a week before letter-of-intent signing day.
So, just to be clear, he wasn’t a recruited walk-on. “They didn’t call me (initially),” said Burtch. “I called them.”
Jeff Jamrog, the assistant athletic director for football operations, called the day before signing day to offer him the opportunity to walk on.
As for what has happened this season, “there was never a moment where it just clicked that I would play a lot,” Burtch said. “I just prepared myself and the opportunity came.
“So I just seized the moment, I guess.”
Besides preparation, his versatility has enabled him to seize the moment. “He plays every single position in our wide-receiving corps,” Bell said.
Bell was sidelined by injury during the Northwestern game, which was the reason Burtch was on the field for the final series.
And the approach Fisher takes was the reason he got the crucial first down. Attention to detail, “we preach that in the (receivers) room,” said Burtch.