Tyler Wullenwaber is hoping to emerge from the shadows of the 2011 Nebraska Spring Game (above).
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Walk-on Wullenwaber Has What It Takes

By NU Athletic Communications

Randy York's N-Sider

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A quarter century ago, New York Times writer Malcolm Moran spent 10 days in Lincoln, trying to figure out why Nebraska was such a football power and if a team loading up on walk-ons was following all the rules or finding ways to get around them.

After hearing all kinds of rumors and innuendoes about Nebraska’s fabled walk-on program, Moran decided local writers knew the situation better than national writers, the eternal skeptics.

“If all these guys were so great, why didn’t somebody else recruit ‘em out of high school?” Moran asked me. “It’s not like Nebraska gets players other people want.”

Well, that’s not always true, and especially not in the unique case of redshirt sophomore wide receiver Tyler Wullenwaber, a talented multi-sport walk-on who competed in football, basketball and track at Centennial High School in Utica, Neb.

Let the record show that a Division I coach did offer Wullenwaber a scholarship, and it was from the same school he dreamed about playing for – Nebraska. The rub was the offer came from Gary Pepin, the Huskers head track and field coach.

Pepin Offered Him a Scholarship

The most successful head coach in Big 12 Conference history in any sport, Pepin offered Wullenwaber financial aid, and it wasn’t because he was betting on extraordinary development to produce an exceptional athlete.

Tyler Wullenwaber, 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, was and still is an exceptional athlete. In high school, he ran a 10.5 in the 100 meters and a 21.6 in the 200 meters. He long jumped 24-1 and high jumped 6-9 … impressive feats whether you’re in the big-school prep ranks or in Classes B and C, where Wullenwaber competed.

“Fastest kid on the team, I think,” said fellow walk-on defensive tackle Justin Jackson. “He has everyone’s respect.” Fellow fleet-footed wide receiver Kenny Bell agreed this week after watching Wullenwaber compete with Nebraska’s No. 2 offensive unit.

If you’re looking for more credibility, ask Alfonzo Dennard, Nebraska’s First-Team All-Big Ten Conference defensive back and possible first-round NFL draft choice. When Dennard came back from injury last season, he was impressed with the way Scout Teamer Wullenwaber raced right by him in practice and went out of his way to tell the walk-on how fast he is and how difficult he is to cover.

The kid’s tough, too. Would you believe he’s already had three shoulder surgeries? The third one was a joint decision among Nebraska’s medical staff, position coach Rich Fisher and “Wully”, who played through considerable pain last August, September and early into October before Fisher convinced him to get his shoulder fixed. That way, he could be ready for spring football and compete for time on the field in 2012.

Will Wear Todd Peterson’s No. 17

Make no mistake. Nebraska coaches and Husker athletes believe Tyler Wullenwaber, who changed his #26 jersey to #17 next fall so he could wear the same number walk-on role model Todd Peterson wore, has what it takes to play on Saturdays.

The key questions are when does that opportunity launch and what are his best chances to get that highly coveted playing time?

This is where the Tyler Wullenwaber Story parallels classic walk-on stories from yesterday. Now the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism at Penn State, Moran considered NU walk-ons “true phenomenons” then and still does now.

“This is supposed to be an age of instant gratification for athletes at almost all levels,” Moran said. “Yet you have players who will go to Nebraska on blind faith. They’re willing to get pushed and shoved, yelled at and lift weights for three or four years just to play one or two years.”

Wully does not dispute that notion, and if he can stay healthy, he wants to accelerate that timetable by at least a year because he has three years of eligibility remaining.

All He Wants is to Have a Role

“I just want to have a role on the team,” he said. “Last summer, I was feeling pretty low. I didn’t think I was going to get invited to be one of the 105 at fall camp. When I got that invitation, it meant a lot to me. It gave me a big shot of confidence. It made me realize they believed in me.”

Injuries can get inside the psyches of the best athletes. Effort has never been an issue for this young man. “I get my work ethic from my dad (Donald),” he said. “He works hard at everything he does, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes, too.”

In high school, as a wide receiver, Wully was first-team all-state in both Nebraska major newspapers. In basketball, he averaged 14-plus points a game in what he calls his “stress-free” sport. In track and field, he was state long jump champion three times, high jump champion once and 200-meter champion once.

Every time the locals looked up, Wully was trying to hit another milestone. “My only regret is, I wish I had lifted weights more than I did in high school,” he said. “I think that might have helped me with my shoulder issues.”

Fortunately, Wully found a confidante in assistant Husker strength and conditioning coach Brandon Rigoni, a one-time Nebraska football captain and a “gunner” who was fast and fearless sprinting downfield and breaking up the opponent’s kick return game.

‘Coach Rig’ is Another Role Model

Talk about one young man’s work ethic finding and being inspired by another’s. “I’m pretty tight with Coach Rig,” Wully said. “I’ve heard about the kind of effort he gave out when he was a walk-on here. Guys who played with him said he’d be going 100 miles an hour. Even on a slow-tempo day, he was always flying around.”

Wully has shown similar energy and was awarded back-to-back Scout Team honors during non-conference games last fall. He was the Offensive Player of the Week for the Washington game and the Special Teams Player of the Week for the Wyoming Game.

For athletes who come to Nebraska on blind faith, awards like that are meaningful. They keep players going on all cylinders even when they’re playing with shoulders that need to be fixed. “We made the decision to have surgery before the Ohio State game,” Wully said. “It was hard for me to take myself off the field, but it was definitely the right decision. I’ve been cleared to run, then cleared to lift some and now I have full clearance. In the days leading up to spring practice, I've been able to do everything I need to do.”

First up on the priority chart – after former Husker walk-on All-American Scott Strasburger performed surgery on his dislocated shoulder – is to gain back the 10 pounds Wully lost, so he can compete with more physicality and stamina.

“My speed is my best asset because it allows me to get by people, but I’ve also been working on everything else I need to become successful,” Wully said. “I’ve been consistent catching the ball and have worked hard to pick up the other things that can put me on the field.”

Teammates Call Marlowe ‘The Professor’

Tim Marlowe became Wully’s role model when surgery took him off the field and forced a deeper dive into the playbook. He became a sponge at team meetings, studying the playbook binder and learning the nuances of route-running.

“We call Marlowe ‘The Professor’ because he knows every inch of our playbook,” Wully said. “He knows every post pattern and what routes to run depending on coverage. He can explain the right reads and tell you the right depth.”

No wonder Wully made up his mind to sharpen his mind. “I want to be ready when my opportunity comes,” he said. “I have great respect for Coach Fish. I’m glad he’s here. I’ve learned a lot and have a lot more to learn.”

No more days like high school when someone would throw the ball up and Wullenwaber would turn on the jets and then haul it in. “It’s all starting to click for me now,” he said. “I’ve gotten over a big hump and know there are more ahead of me.”

James Dobson, Nebraska’s head strength and conditioning coach, is another major catalyst in Wully’s rapid development. “His circuit workouts are tough,” Wully said. “It’s like a gauntlet … very intense and you realize how much of it is in your mind. You have to go into every workout with a kick-in-the-rear attitude. It’s like Coach Dobson says: ‘Boys do what they want to do, and men do what they have to do.’”

Always Trying to Exceed Expectations

Wully never truly envisioned himself as an intense watcher of film until he had no choice in the matter. “I have to watch everything I can, so I can stay on top of the game,” he said. “I have to keep my strength up, get my rest and always make sure I do more than what I’m required to do.”

It’s part of the mantra of being a walk-on. “It’s hard to earn the respect you have to have to compete at this level,” he said. “Walk-ons always believe we have to play harder, give more and set the tone for the scholarship players, even though we’re treated the same as they are. We have to get noticed to get on the field and then once we get that chance, we have to expand on it.”

Confident that he made the right decision to chase his biggest dream, Wullenwaber still has great respect for Pepin, who tried to recruit him to compete in track.

“Coach Pepin told me when he was recruiting me that he wouldn’t want me looking over my shoulder wondering if I should have given football a try,” he said. “He’s an awesome guy, and I think I know why his athletes love competing for him.

“I’m glad I did what I did,” Wully said, admitting that, like so many others before him, he accepted the opportunity to walk on, based on blind faith, not to mention a fervent desire to do whatever it takes to pursue his own field of dreams, otherwise known as Memorial Stadium … the pipedream that just may be about to become a reality.

Send a comment or a story idea to ryork@huskers.com

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