NU football vs. Minnesota, 10/20/18

Nebraska head coach Scott Frost is all smiles after getting drenched by water by Husker players following the team's 53-28 win over Minnesota on Oct. 20 at Memorial Stadium.

You perhaps already noticed, but I'm asleep right now. Please don't wake me, as I'm having an interesting dream.

It goes like this: Kids throughout Nebraska shun their video game systems and find open fields to — get this — play football. They actually organize their own games. Yes, outside. In fresh air. What a concept. Some kids even play touch football in the street. Neighbors look on with mouths agape.

The dream continues. Football fever grips our state. Kids imitate Adrian Martinez's open-field moves that leave defenders grasping for air. They practice Maurice Washington's spin move. A few of the bigger kids eat buckets of ice cream because they want to become as humongous as Brenden Jaimes and someday play on the Nebraska offensive line. They have a vague notion of when the Husker program was so good along the line that a nickname evolved: The Pipeline. Surely someone remembers those days.

You remember how Terry Pettit once upon a time sparked volleyball's popularity throughout the state? In a sense (in my dream), a similar phenomenon occurs, but this time football is the sport. Enthusiasm shoots to another level. Soccer fields become football fields. Kids begin to understand the nuances of Scott Frost's offense and, to a lesser degree, Erik Chinander's defense. There's a certain amount of reality we must acknowledge.

The dream keeps getting better. Don't wake me. All the excitement for football in the state improves the overall level of play all the way down to youth leagues. Enthusiasm for Frost's program is through the roof and kids in the state will do anything to be part of it. There are so many excellent players who want to walk on, it almost feels like 1997 when Frost was the starting quarterback.

What a wonderful dream. Perhaps it's not so far-fetched. Frost and his staff have pumped energy into the walk-on program. The "Home Grown" walk-on events at Memorial Stadium have been a hit. In December, Frost had Nebraska natives Wyatt Mazour, Brandon Reilly, Matt Jarzynka and Bryan Reimers talk to high school prospects about their own walk-on experience at the school. Local media have increased coverage of walk-on recruiting, a nod to Frost's powerful presence.

"I think Frost does put a bigger emphasis on it," said Reilly, who completed his eligibility in 2016. "But I think it's made even bigger through the media and with social media."

Frost likes to talk about the 1997 Nebraska team's in-state talent. On that offense, with a little creative math, you can come up with nine starters — nine! — from in-state schools: Frost (Wood River), left tackle Fred Pollack (Omaha Creighton Prep), right guard Jon Zatechka (Lincoln East), right tackle Eric Anderson (Lincoln Southeast), fullback Joel Makovicka (East Butler), I-back Ahman Green (Omaha Central), wingback Lance Brown (Papillion-LaVista), tight end Tim Carpenter (Columbus High) and tight end Vershan Jackson (Omaha South).

Makovicka was the only walk-on among the in-state starters, but Jeff Lake (Columbus Lakeview), Billy Legate (Clearwater), Matt Hoskinson (Battle Creek) and Jay Sims (Omaha) were among in-state walk-ons who had significant roles for the national championship team.

As Nebraska's interim athletic director in the fall of 2017, former Husker All-American center Dave Rimington of Omaha emphasized the importance of the walk-on program. He acutely understands the impact walk-ons and in-state players have had on the program's culture in its brightest days. He has seen countless players come through the program "whose biggest asset was their willingness to work."

Those players push out-of-state stars to fulfill potential. It still happens in the program, just not to the extent it once did. Former Nebraska linebacker Luke Gifford, a senior in 2018, points to Austin Rose (Lincoln North Star) and Jeramiah Stovall (Creighton Prep) as two prime examples of walk-ons for the 2018 team that would do anything for the program. They earned teammates' respect.

"Stovall was a psycho, the way he runs down the field," Gifford said with a smile. 

But you can't help but wonder if Frost ever will have the sort of walk-on talent that helped propel the program to elite status in the 1990s. After all, the world has changed. College is more expensive. Plus, Nebraska's prolonged slide from national relevance hasn't helped matters. Then there's this: Kids grow up in a generation wanting everything handed to them immediately. Being a walk-on can be a thankless endeavor. But the importance remains.

Maybe you've noticed: Nebraska needs any advantage it can muster.

Frost's emphasis on the walk-on program won't pay off to the level he wants overnight. It could take years. It's yet another example of why Nebraska fans should be patient with Frost as he builds the program in the form he desires.

"I think right now we have to figure out the numbers game — the Title IX equation," Rimington said. "How many players can we bring in?"

How many difference-makers will want to be brought in as walk-ons?

"We have to have more success than we've had in recent years in order to get everyone to buy in," Rimington said. "There's been a generation or so of players that hasn't seen Nebraska win big. You're going to have to get some momentum and have younger kids believe.

"That walk-on program can save your butt. You need depth, and we don't have a lot of depth along the offensive and defensive lines. We just don't."

That's the reality. But it can change. Especially with a leader who dreams big.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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