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Illinois at Nebraska, 11/10/18

Offensive lineman Trent Hixson warms up before the Huskers' game against Illinois in November.

Trent Hixson did not consider himself a player near game-ready when he first arrived on Nebraska’s campus as a walk-on offensive lineman from Omaha Skutt in 2017.

“No, I was a really raw player. I brought the physicality to practice, but technique was lacking,” he said this week.

He spent a season learning under head coach Mike Riley’s staff, then found himself with a new set of coaches across the board, from head coach Scott Frost to offensive line coach Greg Austin to strength and conditioning coach Zach Duval.

This spring, a little more than a year after that staff arrived, Hixson rose to a top-line spot on the NU offensive line. He not only held on to that spot through the summer and preseason camp, but he earned a scholarship in the process.

Some players — running back Wyatt Mazour included — were given scholarships last year, but they were either seniors or, in Mazour’s case, the scholarship was for the year only.

Hixson, Frost made it clear, is on scholarship for his final three seasons of eligibility, another rung up the ladder. For his part, Hixson says nothing better could have happened in terms of his growth and development than the hiring of a staff that takes its walk-ons seriously and treats them like scholarship players as much as possible.

“I think I got lucky in that aspect and then just working hard, doing what I’m supposed to do,” said Hixson, who is now listed at 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds. “I mean, Coach Frost has an appreciation for (walk-ons) that I don’t think the last staff necessarily understood. (Former defensive line coach John) Parrella, I think he understood it, but I don’t think all the coaches understood the value of it necessarily.”

That’s why Frost holds up Hixson as example of the first player — and almost assuredly not the last — to climb through the walk-on ranks to not only scholarship status but to a point where he is going to help the Huskers on the field in a significant way, even though he technically walked on under the previous coaching staff.

“We’re starting to not just get depth from the walk-on program, we’re starting to identify some guys that can be guys that help us win games and potentially be starters for us,” Frost said. “And that’s what Nebraska was when I was here, and that’s what I want it to be again.”

Day to day, in fact, life is very similar for walk-ons and scholarship players.

“It’s got to start all the way from the recruiting process, and that was one of the first things we tried to incorporate as we revamped or went back to the way the walk-on program looked like in the past,” NU football chief of staff Gerrod Lambrecht said this week. “You want these guys in the recruiting process to be treated more like a four-star recruit in the process than just something you add at the very end of a recruiting cycle.”

Once a walk-on is on campus, he is evaluated in the summer weight room program just like the scholarship players are. That’s the route to making the 110-man camp roster for everybody. This summer, five made it to start and a few others were added as August progressed.

From there, the goal, as Lambrecht puts it, is to have the walk-ons' experience be as similar to a scholarship player’s as possible. A few aspects, such as meals, require differentiation because of NCAA rules. For the most part, though, walk-ons have access to all the same information about nutrition and training, all the same weight-room resources and the same opportunity to move up the depth chart.

“We do everything we can within the rules to provide for them just like we would a scholarship athlete,” Lambrecht said. “There’s always going to be a certain level of differentiation, but we do everything we can to minimize that.

“It’s a full-scale approach to it. Depth chart, meetings, workouts. It’s all going to be based on their ability and where they’re at in their development progression, not whether they’re a scholarship or a walk-on.”

It only takes a cursory look at NU’s Week 1 depth chart to see that walk-ons have opportunities. Hixson is a starter and sophomore receiver Kade Warner will see significant playing time when he’s fully healthy. Mazour is a co-No. 3 at running back and assistant coach Ryan Held says he will play. Redshirt freshman Joey Johnson is on the two-deep at inside linebacker, while redshirt freshman Isaiah Stalbird, junior Eli Sullivan and senior Reid Karel are all on the depth chart at safety.

Of course, the competition is stiff. Among 153 players currently on the roster, 70 are walk-ons. Since Frost and company arrived, more than 80 have joined the program and more than two dozen have cycled out, according to the Journal Star’s roster tracking efforts. After two cycles of taking 20-plus walk-ons, the classes will likely be smaller going forward. Even so, players will be asked to continually make progress or risk their roster spot, which is not altogether different than scholarship players.

“I think, generally speaking, we would hope that there will always be a scholarship or two available (for the year) that walk-ons are competing for,” Lambrecht said, “But we also hope that there are more Trent Hixsons that show themselves to be worthy of a scholarship early on in the process.”

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

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Sports writer

Parker joined the Journal Star as the University of Nebraska football beat writer in August 2017. He previously covered Montana State athletics for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2012.

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