When you’re driving your defender backward to free a teammate for a big gain on fourth-and-2 or desperately reaching out of bounds after a reception to stop the clock before a Hail Mary pass, your efforts won’t go unnoticed.

Those fourth-quarter plays by walk-on Sam Burtch last season spurred game-winning drives in dramatic Nebraska victories against Michigan and Northwestern.

They’re also exhibits A and B on a fairly long list of reasons that explain why Burtch technically is no longer a walk-on.

The Murdock native was placed on scholarship in January, meaning Burtch, an Academic All-Big Ten player, achieved his goal earlier than he’d anticipated.

“Big time, man,” said Burtch, a junior who’s entering his fourth season in the program. “This is kind of the earliest I was hoping for. It’s pretty early for a walk-on. You don’t usually get it until your senior year, or something like that. So this is pretty early.

“It’s just a blessing to have that opportunity.”

Burtch’s next opportunity is to earn a starting position at wide receiver.

Nebraska is replacing Quincy Enunwa, last season’s team leader in touchdown receptions, and the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Burtch is battling junior Taariq Allen for the spot opposite senior starter Kenny Bell.

Burtch took the majority of the reps with the No. 1 offense in Monday’s practice, a development that’s far less intimidating than it once was for Burtch.

“I just got kind of nervous when I got reps with (the) ones in practice (last year),” Burtch said. “It’s totally different now. You get more comfortable.”

Nebraska receivers coach Rich Fisher said last spring to keep an eye on Burtch because of his deceptive speed, physical ability, ball skills and overall football IQ.

When injuries began mounting among the wide receivers last fall, guess who coaches tapped on the shoulder?

“I looked at the depth chart and thought it was a possibility,” Burtch said. “I didn’t expect it. I never really expect anything.”

Burtch played in all 12 games, starting two, although 10 of his 12 receptions came over the season’s final five games. He caught three touchdowns, including a career-long 32-yarder against Michigan State.

Burtch is experienced at all of the receiver positions, having played some slot against Northwestern when Jamal Turner was injured.

“He’s exceeded expectations, and really, he’s come a long way in a short amount of time,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “The guy understands how to play football. He’s big, he’s physical, he’s fast.

“On top of that, he’s a great character kid and a big-time leader on our team.”

Burtch said the game experience he gained was invaluable, and that he’s using this spring to hone all areas of his game, not necessarily focusing on any one area.

“It’s just getting more reps and getting better,” he said.

Burtch is part of what Bell says is a deeper and more experienced receiving corps than last season. Bell also singled out the play of Brandon Reilly, predicting the sophomore walk-on from Lincoln Southwest will also earn a scholarship, just like Burtch.

“Burtchy’s one of those guys who comes out and grinds hard every day,” Bell said. “I mean, you can’t ever not like a guy like that. He knows the entire offense like he plays quarterback. He’s a stud.”

​Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or brosenthal@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBR.