Rich Fisher recently pulled out some cut-ups of one-on-one drills from a couple of seasons ago, with the idea to show his Nebraska wide receivers how they've progressed over time with their technique and route running.
One player on film wasn't recognizable. Somebody, surely, who wasn't still in the Huskers’ program.
“He just looked liked a gangly gazelle,” Fisher said.
It’s the same player who’s now coming off a career-best game against the nation’s No. 1 defense.
Yes, that wiry kid from Murdock, Sam Burtch, now boasts a considerably bigger frame, and a bigger game to go with it.
“That was my main goal my first year, to put on weight,” Burtch said, “because, obviously, you could tell I wasn't physically prepared to play.”
But he had the intangibles. The football IQ. The wherewithal to stick the ball out of bounds after making a sideline catch to stop the clock and help set up a game-winning touchdown heave on the game’s final play.
“Those are the kinds of things,” Fisher said, referring to Burtch’s fourth-quarter grab in the Huskers’ Hail Mary victory against Northwestern. “You can’t cover every single scenario, but smart guys make smart decisions.”
Burtch made one such decision in February of 2011, when he accepted Nebraska’s late — and we do mean late — offer to join the program as a walk-on. Until then, Burtch was likely headed to Northwest Missouri State to play football and run track.
Burtch, because of a conflict the previous summer, hadn't attended Nebraska’s football camp. He wasn't among the some 25 players, either, that came to campus the following January to spend time with Nebraska’s staff and discuss walking on.
To say he wasn't on Nebraska’s radar would be an understatement.
Then late in the recruiting process, veteran Elmwood-Murdock coach Leigh Schmale called Jeff Jamrog, Nebraska’s director of football operations, and told him about “a heck of a player” at his school.
“I’ll never forget what Coach Schmale said to me, he goes, ‘I coached against (Matt) Davison, and I’m telling you, he’s every bit as good as Matt Davison,’” Jamrog said, referring to the former Husker receiver from Tecumseh.
That flattering recommendation, along with some film, is all it took for the Husker staff to meet with Burtch and his family. Jamrog called back the day before signing day with an invitation to walk on, and on that first Wednesday in February, Burtch was a Husker.
“It was probably one of the faster turnarounds we've ever had with a walk-on,” Jamrog said. “Thank goodness Coach Schmale gave us a call.”
At 6-foot-3 but only 169 pounds, Burtch redshirted his first season. He now weighs 195 pounds and has increased his speed while maintaining that football savviness and his no-nonsense approach.
“His attitude, his work ethic, his football IQ is what really sticks out to me,” Fisher said. “He’s a guy who wants to be a coach, and I think he studies the game like a coach. He’s really into it. Any time you get somebody who’s really, really invested, like most of these guys are, good things start to happen.
“It’s not rocket science. It takes preparation, and you've got to put time into it. When he studies it, he wants to know the why and how, not just seeing something on a piece of paper and saying, ‘OK, I run this route.’ That’s what has allowed him to really grow.”
Burtch played in four games last season and didn't have a catch, but his name surfaced in spring practices as a player to watch come fall.
That’s come to fruition with Nebraska’s once-deep receiving corps battling injuries. Jamal Turner has missed three games, including the last two, with a calf strain. Kenny Bell and Jordan Westerkamp have fought injuries. Tyler Wullenwaber ended his career because of shoulder issues. Alonzo Moore is sidelined with a knee problem.
That makes having a smart, versatile player like Burtch, who can play any receiver position, a valuable asset. He made his first career start Saturday against Michigan State, and caught five passes for 86 yards, both career highs. That included a 32-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.
“When Westy got hurt, we played (Burtch) inside,” Fisher said. “He had been playing outside, but he picked it up pretty quick, and that’s what he played in that game. He was running all inside routes in that game, and obviously had a big day, a bunch of big catches.”
Not that it surprised Fisher, or Burtch, for that matter.
“I feel like I've been productive in practice, so it’s not like it’s a surprise that I automatically catch some balls in a game,” Burtch said. “That’s not like shocking or anything. I’m sure you guys all see it, so it’s surprising for you.
“I’m just focusing on what needs to be done. It’s not like I’m trying to be the big man out there.”
But he’s become a pretty important one, another success story from the many Nebraska walk-ons through the years.
Then again, it’s likely we’ll one day be referring to Burtch as a former walk-on. Perhaps one day soon.
“I sure hope so,” Fisher said. “He’s deserving (of a scholarship) in my book, if it’s up to me. I think if he stays the course, good things will happen for him, no doubt.”