Randy York's N-sider
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There are 13 good stories that could be written before 13 Nebraska seniors walk out of that storied North Stadium tunnel Saturday night in a nationally televised game against Kansas State ... 14 good stories if you count Blake Lawrence, whose concussions forced an early end to his football career a few weeks ago.
Even though they'll be introduced from lowest to highest numbers for that last entrance onto college football's grandest stage, let's remember this senior class alphabetically. You have:
- Hard-hitting Safety Larry Asante from Alexandria, Virginia.
- Persevering Wide Receiver Chris Brooks from St. Louis, Missouri.
- Academically gifted Wide Receiver Wes Cammack from DeWitt, Nebraska.
- Sixth-year Offensive Lineman Andy Christensen from Bennington, Nebraska.
- Fully transformed Linebacker Phillip Dillard from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
- HERO Award-winning Defensive End David Harvey from La Plata, Maryland.
- Rimington Watch List Center Jacob Hickman from Bakersfield, California.
- Three-time letter-winning Wide Receiver Menelik Holt from San Diego, California.
- Long-shot transfer Linebacker Colton Koehler from Harvard, Nebraska.
- Former K-State Offensive Lineman Derek Meyer from Campbell, Nebraska.
- Walk-on sensation Safety Matt O'Hanlon from Bellevue, Nebraska.
- All-America Defensive Tackle candidate Ndamukong Suh from Portland, Oregon.
- Playmaking Defensive End Barry Turner from Antioch, Tennessee.
Living, Loving, Learning, Leaving Legacies
Football, of course, is a game of fundamentals, and there are certain truths whenever you take on the challenge of playing for a program that ranks in the top five of college football in terms of all-time wins, bowl games and just about any other championship standard you care to apply.
These 13 seniors have seen peaks and valleys. They have prospered and suffered. They have lived through the process, loved a change in culture, learned from motivated coaches and are leaving a legacy for future Husker teams to follow.
You can take those facts and use any one of the 13 seniors as "Exhibit A" to show how trials and tribulation can be nurtured and then converted into strength and success.
Today, we focus on a pair of linebackers who represent everything good about a program that has rediscovered its roots and replanted them into a newly built, but still not quite complete foundation.
Phillip Dillard and Colton Koehler have made contributions that Nebraska football fans respect, honor and will forever cherish, even though they have taken different paths to achieve similar legacies.
Dillard was a prized recruit from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who figured he had the talent to play with anyone in the country right away. He joined others who may have arrived in Lincoln wondering what the Nebraska football program could do for them rather than the other way around.
Koehler was an unknown walk-on who first played for Nebraska Wesleyan before deciding to give his prime-time dream a try. He arrived fully determined to do whatever he could for the program.
Dillard and Koehler have competed against each other for playing time, but still share the same late-season vision: Beat Kansas State; beat Colorado; pull off an upset in the Big 12 Championship Game; and then dream the dream that once seemed a bit far-fetched ... play in a BCS bowl game ... in January 2010.
How Do You Want People to Remember You?
"Coach (Mike) Ekeler is always talking about leaving a legacy," said Koehler, who started Nebraska's last six games in 2008, including the Huskers' win over Clemson in the Gator Bowl. "He's always asking: 'How do you want to feel when you leave here? How do you want people to remember you?' This last home game is huge. It means everything to the seniors. It's a big part of our legacy."
Dillard thinks along the same lines. "What we've done and must continue to do is write this story because it's in our own hands," he said. "We're fighting for the North, and then we'll think about the next team and after that, the next team ... and after that, the next team. This is it for us. We're excited that we still control our legacy. We all want this to be the season that turns this program around, and everything we do is done with that in mind."
Ekeler knows that more evidence must be presented before any verdict can be made about this team, this season or the state of this program, but he's all in when it comes to discussing these two dedicated, team-oriented linebackers.
"Look at Colton," he said. "All he wanted was a shot, and he got it, and he delivered. He's sharp and very, very conscientious. His attention to detail earned him an opportunity when Phil went down last year. Colton was a big key in helping us beat Clemson. What a neat story about a team guy. You'd never know he's not getting on the field much. I mean, he's still the guy that sits in the front row of the meeting room on the edge of his chair, waiting to learn more, so he can help anyone who's out there. Sure, he'd like to be out there more, but in his mind and in my mind, he is out there.
"Colton's legacy came against all odds because he kept working, kept believing, kept fighting and finally got the opportunity," Ekeler said. "At the University of Nebraska, moments like that are rare. I mean it's here one minute and then (snapping his fingers) gone the next. If you don't crash through and grab it when it's there, then it's on to the next guy. Colton jumped through and seized it and never let go of it last year. He did a great job. He'll always be remembered as a guy who played a huge role in changing our culture and getting it back to where it needed to be."
Dillard's story has a different twist. "He came in and had obstacles to overcome," Ekeler said. "He had to drop a bunch of weight. The whole culture of the program changed, and it took a while for Phil to fully embrace it. Now that he has, I wish he could be here for another four years. I love being around him. His work ethic is fantastic. His character is off the chart. Everything about him is right."
Yet for so long, everything seemed so wrong. "Phil had a lot of things to figure out, including the way we do things," Ekeler said. "There's only one way things get done around here, and that's what Bo Pelini sets forth. To Phil's credit, he figured it out before it was too late. He just kept working and working and developed into one of the best stories I've ever been around as a coach or a player. I would have never thought in a million years that Phil would have done what he did, and I couldn't be more proud of the guy."
Parents Encouraged Him, Never Gave Him an Out
Dillard's life hurdles have been many. Both of his biological parents died, and he was adopted by Tyrone and Ronda Lynn in Tulsa as a fourth-grader. "His adopted family is second to none," Ekeler said. "You talk about incredible people. All through Phil's problems here, his dad never gave him an out, and his mother never quit encouraging him. He listened and learned and is now in position to leave his legacy. He's probably happier than he's ever been in his entire life just because of the person he's become, let alone what he's doing on the field."
The question is: Can a fully transformed Phillip Dillard be the kind of linebacker who might someday play on Sundays?
"No question ... no question!" Ekeler answered. "I don't know if there's a linebacker in this conference playing any better than Phil is right now. At least I haven't seen anybody like him on film. I give all the credit to Phil and his parents. They had a plan. They stuck to it, and they never wavered. They're great people with incredible belief in each other."
Dillard does not go into detail, but he did listen, and he did learn from his parents and his coaches. When he was healthy and still wasn't getting on the field in Nebraska's first two non-conference games, "My mom kept telling me to be patient," he said. "She kept telling me that everything would come together because God has a plan for me, and she dreamed about it all the time. So I kept my head straight and kept working. It was tough because there's nothing you can do but keep doing the right things. After awhile, it really wasn't that hard anymore because I took the approach to control only the things that I could control."
A funny thing happened on the way to that insight. "I developed a better understanding of our defense and where my help was on the field, so I could play faster and quit worrying about my gap responsibility or my coverage," Dillard said. "Now, I know where to go as soon as the ball is snapped. I know what things they can run and out of what formations because I study so much throughout the week that it's become like second nature. When I go out there now, I'm totally ready to play."
Forever grateful that he got his golden opportunity last season and took full advantage of it, Koehler has marveled at Dillard's extreme mental makeover - a change that now parallels his athleticism. The transformation has enabled Dillard to go from bench-warmer to stardom - from no tackles in the first two games to 54 in the last eight to rank third on the team. Look for Dillard to be fully prepared to lead the charge against K-State's fondness for smashmouth football.
"He's definitely someone who went through tough times when he was injured," Koehler said. "He had to overcome a lot. But when they put him down on the depth chart, he never did hang his head or anything. He just kept fighting and fighting until slowly, but surely, it did not go unrecognized. They gave him his shot, and we all see what he's doing. He's a great athlete making big plays."
Dillard Had to Climb the Same Way Walk-ons Move Up
Interestingly, Dillard's psyche got so stripped, he learned what it feels like to run in Koehler's cleats. He was able to understand that every snap and every day is what constitutes a walk-on's pay.
"Walk-ons teach you what passion really is," Dillard said. "They work hard every day and wait for their opportunity. They helped me realize how Nebraska - with so many walk-ons - was able to beat the five-star Floridas and Florida States. I think Nebraska found ways to beat those teams because they would outwork them and outcoach them.
"I've learned that it really isn't about who's more athletic. It's about who's more determined and who wants it more," Dillard said. "It's about what you're willing to do to be the best you can be. Guys like Colton and Matt (O'Hanlon) and all our walk-ons have helped me understand there's no difference between scholarship guys and walk-ons. With these coaches, daily competition is a way of life.
"And because of that, if I was a five-star recruit, I'd want to come to Nebraska more than go anywhere else," Dillard said. "There's a reason why we have the best tradition and the best fans who will stick with you through the good times and the tough times, as long as you give great effort. Man, if you come here, nothing will be given to you, and that's how everyone should want it. There's no question that's what was best for me. I wouldn't trade the down times I've had because they've made the good times better."
Ekeler smiles when he hears such feedback. "Now you know why I want Phil and Farm Dog to leave that legacy," he said, "and why I want them to go out there Saturday night and play the best game they've ever played here."