Dylan Utter spent the first three seasons of his Nebraska football career with the typical chip-on-shoulder approach taken by many in-state walk-ons.
He busted his butt to impress the coaching staff.
Just as he began doing so, that coaching staff was replaced.
Back to square one.
“That’s just kind of the name of the game. It’s a business,” Utter said. “On to the next one, try to impress the next coaches.”
Which, six practices into fall camp, and on the heels of a strong spring and summer, Utter is again doing.
Utter, referred to by former co-offensive line coach Barney Cotton as a “junkyard dog” and current offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh as a “dirt devil,” is primed for a starting role at left guard.
That’s where he’s seeing the majority of reps with the No. 1 offense, that after earning a starting job at center in the Holiday Bowl when injuries thrust Utter, a graduate of Papillion-La Vista High School, into that role.
Mind you, though, injury isn’t the sole reason Utter saw his opportunity.
Players and coaches say Utter has a mean streak, a nasty edge that allows him to hold his own, if not more, in practice battles with Maliek Collins, or with USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams, the No. 6 pick in this year's NFL Draft, in the Holiday Bowl.
“He straps it up all the time,” defensive end Jack Gangwish said of Utter, a junior. “Some people think he's downright mean. That’s because he’s probably beating them.”
Utter doesn’t mind the various adjectives used to describe his play.
“If you’re going 110 percent, if that’s how they want to characterize it,” Utter said, “then that’s fine by me.”
Utter knew such an approach would be the only way he’d have a chance to stand out, a chance to play.
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Barely recruited out of high school, Utter had scholarship offers from Army and North Dakota, and turned both down to walk on with the Huskers and chase a dream.
“Honestly, I probably wasn’t the best player,” said Utter, who played primarily defense in high school. “I was a little heavy. I didn’t have much technique. Once I came here, I really just hammered all that.”
Still, two years into his career, Utter questioned whether he’d made the right move. He wasn’t a part of the fall camp 105-man roster either season.
“I sat down, talked to the coaching staff and just asked for a shot,” Utter said. “Once I got that shot, I kind of proved myself a little bit.”
Last August was his first time on the 105-man roster. Utter thinks he barely made the cut.
“It kind of came down to the wire, but with how I performed the previous spring, I was kind of hoping I made a name for myself,” Utter said. “I knew it was time to strap up and get ready to roll.”
Utter had worked with the second-string offense that spring and made an impression on former co-offensive line coach John Garrison. He and other coaches — this staff included — hammered home the importance of no repeat errors, an area in which Utter has excelled.
“Garrison would always point me out on film, like, ‘This is how you guys should be doing this. Utter is going to be playing this fall because he’s doing what he’s supposed to,’” Utter said. “He kind of used me as an example and it boosted my confidence a little bit.”
Sure enough, Utter did play last season, seeing action in five of the first seven games. His opportunity at center came after injuries to Ryne Reeves and Mark Pelini.
"Once that happened, it kind of gave me knowledge of the game,” Utter said. “Once you know center, you kind of know all the positions, so it helped me step up at left guard.”
Other than taking some pre-practice snaps at center, Utter is working primarily at left guard this fall. He’s ahead of redshirt freshman and Lincoln Southeast graduate Jerald Foster.
“Jerald’s going to be a really good player,” Utter said. “If he needs help or if I need help, we still go to each other. It’s not like we’re not friends. We’re still trying to make the best of each other’s game. It’s just a battle. That’s what football’s all about.”
It’s also — especially at Nebraska — about walk-ons battling and persevering long enough to fulfill a dream, and to make a difference for his team.
“I love it. I think he more than fits in,” first-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “He’s competing hard to start for this team. Absolutely. As a matter of fact for me, once we get out here doing this, I don’t even know or remember if they’re walk-ons or not. As soon as we pick the guys that get to come to camp … then they just get to play.”