Nebraska’s long-standing walk-on tradition can be traced to Bob Devaney’s tenure as coach. For all intents and purposes, it began then. But walk-ons became commonplace under Tom Osborne, as a hedge against the NCAA’s reduction in football-scholarship limits.
In 1974, Osborne’s second season as head coach, the NCAA maximum was reduced dramatically, from 45 to 30 annually – 33 percent. So he began encouraging walk-ons, even holding back scholarships to award to those who worked their way onto the two-deeps.
As a result, Nebraska gained a reputation for being a haven for walk-ons.
A national reputation.
In August of 1988, Malcolm Moran wrote in the New York Times: “The effort of the walkons provides the physical and emotional backbone of the Nebraska program.”
To some degree, that’s still the case, though the number of walk-ons has diminished significantly over the last 30 years. In 1981, nearly 90 walk-ons began fall camp at Nebraska.
Walk-ons are carefully screened now. Nearly all are recruited. But the commitment remains the same, and they continue to make significant contributions. Walk-ons form the interior of the offensive line. Guards Spencer Long, Seung Hoon Choi and Justin Jackson all walked on.
So did punter and place-kicker Brett Maher, long-snapper P.J. Mangieri and holder Jase Dean.
Husker coach Bo Pelini discussed the continued importance of the walk-on program during his weekly news conference on the Monday before the final home game against Minnesota. Nebraska’s senior class of 29 includes 12 who walked on, including the six mentioned here.
When he was hired following the 2007 season, “the walk-on program had taken a big-time hit,” said Pelini, “and obviously I leaned on Coach Osborne big-time.”
Pelini’s predecessor, Bill Callahan, didn’t consider walk-ons important; at least his actions indicated that, though he did award 18 scholarships to walk-ons over his four seasons as coach.
He (Pelini) and Osborne, the athletic director, “talked about kind of where the program was and what needed to happen going forward, how important the walk-on program was,” Pelini said.
The vast majority of walk-ons come from Nebraska, of course, and they provide a unique connection to Husker fans in their communities. Of this year’s 12 seniors who walked on, Mangieri is the only one from outside the state. He’s from Peoria, Ill. The others are from small towns such as Ponca (Justin Blatchford) and Wauneta (Taylor Dixon) as well as from Lincoln and Omaha.
“Let me tell you, the walk-ons that have been in this program have represented the state really well and have done a tremendous job of contributing, and they are a huge part of this program,” said Pelini, who discussed the subject with ABC television color analyst Chris Spielman.
Like Pelini, Spielman, who was in Lincoln for the Penn State game, played at Ohio State.
“The longer you’re around it (the walk-on program) . . . you become a lot more appreciative of the necessity of it here and the uniqueness of it,” Pelini said.
“I’ll be honest with you, coming in I didn’t quite understand how it all worked over time and how to make the best use of it. You kind of learn and grow with it, and you realize how important it is to your program. To me, I’ve come to really understand how important it is to the people of this state and to the fans. I think it gives you a big-time edge, and an edge we need to use.”
The Huskers have to recruit not just regionally but nationally. But walk-ons help compensate for the lack of a large population base from which Nebraska can recruit in-state.
“I don’t know if someone else in a different state could copy the formula and make it work in another state. It’s different here, and it’s hard to explain. But it just is,” said Pelini. “You have kids more willing to bypass maybe money someplace else or an opportunity to be on scholarship or whatever the situation might be. Every situation is a little bit different, but the families (are key) . . . moms and dads that are willing to foot the bill for their kids to attack their dream and play for Nebraska.”
The walk-on program has always been about pursuing a dream.
“That’s unique. Trust me when I tell you that doesn’t happen everywhere,” Pelini said. “And it’s not going to happen everywhere.”