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No one can see it, but Nebraska sophomore linebacker Trevor Roach carries a chip on his shoulder. It's hidden somewhere under his shoulder pads. You can't see it, but he can feel it every day at practice and every time his cleats dig into Memorial Stadium like they did last September when he played in the Huskers' season-opener against Tennessee-Chattanooga as a redshirt freshman.
Roach, you see, grew up looking up to Nebraska walk-ons from his hometown of Elkhorn, Neb. There were current teammates Jake and Spencer Long, plus a group of Elkhorn grads that includes Jay Moore, Kevin Thomsen and the Chad and Clayton Sievers, another set of brothers who came to Lincoln with a chip on their shoulders, so they could survive the rigor of Nebraska football. Having a chip on your shoulder used to refer to men who were so used to starting a fight, they actually put chips of wood on their shoulders and challenged others to try and knock it off.
Some see the reference in negative terms ... as a metaphor, for instance, to describe someone so angry that he's looking for trouble and therefore you need "to watch out for that guy" because he has that chip on his shoulder.
With all due respect to all kinds of thinking, Roach has always viewed the phrase "having a chip on your shoulder" as a positive expression that accurately describes the hearts and minds of Nebraska football walk-ons. "I've heard it from almost everyone I know who walked on here," he said, "and they all see it as working your tail off every single day and working as hard as you can because you never know when your time will come."
An Injury Away from No. 1 Middle Linebacker?
Roach certainly embraces that philosophy, and now it's more pervasive than ever because the man he's backing up, senior middle linebacker Will Compton, reminds Roach every day that if he holds his spot in fall camp, he potentially could be an injury away from stepping on the field with Nebraska's No. 1 defense..
That is sound advice from a veteran player, and it reinforces everything Roach heard from a legendary walk-on, who opened his small gym in Waterloo, Neb., to help a newcomer gain significant strength and conditioning in his pursuit of playing time.
"I actually used to work out with Mark Schellen and lift with him twice a week when I decided to walk on here," Roach said. "His gym's about 10 minutes from where I live. He's all about gaining that power so you can have that chip (on your shoulder) that helps you compete."
Schellen was the fourth and most unheralded member of Nebraska's famous Scoring Explosion team - the highest scoring team in college football history that featured Turner Gill at quarterback, Mike Rozier at I-back and Irving Fryar at wingback. Schellen was the fullback. Because there's only one football, he didn't get nearly as many chances to shine. But when he did, Schellen was one powerful, explosive force. He could cut a hole right through the defense, and when he didn't have the ball, he would knock down potential tacklers and clear the way for The Triplets, the term Barry Switzer often used to describe "Earth, Wind and Fryar".
Schellen Had a Chip on His Shoulder, Too
By now, you should know that Roach believes Schellen had that same proverbial chip on his broad shoulders. The powerful walk-on was, in fact, so confident that he would have welcomed having a chip of wood placed on his shoulder so he could invite someone to knock it off.
Schellen trained so hard and busted his rear so much, he feared no one. He taught Roach how to train with power, and it was a great benefit, just everything else he gleans from others on a daily basis.
Roach will never forget the influence that Jeff Jamrog, Nebraska's assistant athletic director for football, had on him when he decided to bypass a Northwest Missouri State University scholarship for the chance to walk on at Nebraska. Jamrog, another Elkhorn native who became a First-Team Nebraska Football Academic All-American, gave Roach the straight scoop on life as a walk-on because he was one himself.
"He was really straight-forward with me," Roach said of Jamrog. "He told me if I really thought I could play here, then he was ready to accept me as a walk-on. He said if I didn't think I could play here, I should go somewhere else. He told me being a walk-on was not going to be easy in any way. That's why I had to bust my tail every day and set the tone for everyone else, even though I wouldn't have a scholarship."
Jamrog: Being a Walk-On is Far from Easy
Did Jamrog tell him that he needed to have a chip on his shoulder the second he arrived in Lincoln? "I don't remember if he did," Roach said, "but he let me know how important the walk-on mindset was and how important it is to bust you tail every day, whether you're feeling good or not, whether you've had a bad day or not or whether you thought you were going to get on the field or not."
Roach essentially receives and often delivers the same message every day himself because he lives with three other sophomore walk-ons -- defensive back Joey Felici, defensive end J.C. Moore and defensive tackle Jeff Uher
All four walked on for two reasons - to play and to help the team. All four believe they'd rather be on the field without a scholarship than on the bench with one. That's why they work as hard as they can to earn respect and playing time.
After mostly spot duty on special teams as a redshirt freshman, Roach is in a good rotation now, working mostly with 2's vs. 2's and also getting a chance to compete against Nebraska's No. 1 offense.
Compton's the Teacher; Roach is the Sponge
"I'm learning as much as I can every day, especially mentally," Roach said. "Will is a good guy and a great teacher. He explains everything you need to do and why. He's very intelligent and a good leader. I'm glad I came here. I didn't want to go somewhere else and always wonder 'What If?' My first year on the Scout Team, I knew I could play here athletically, even physically. What I wasn't sure about is if I could grasp it all mentally. I was skeptical about that, especially in my first year."
Once he started to catch on to the defense, thanks to repeated tutorials from Lavonte David and Sean Fisher, Roach's confidence grew. "I'm starting to dig deep down and learn everything I can and still bring it every day," Roach said. "Will has been a great help. He's very unselfish, and his attitude is rubbing off on a lot of people, including me. He helps us understand the X's and O's, plus the mental toughness we need to have. He wants us all to be very prepared for every practice and every game."
Roach is so focused on the task at hand that he skipped a trip on Spring Break, so he could stay home, help his parents with odd jobs around the house, work out, stay in shape and maintain his mental focus.
According to Roach, Nebraska's leadership is gaining momentum across the board, but he sees major roles in that area from Rex Burkhead and Taylor Martinez on offense and from Compton and Baker Steinkuhler on defense. All are seniors except for Martinez, a junior.
Wisdom Has a Way of Getting Passed On
Compton helps lead the defense as a middle linebacker, and he's helping his sophomore backup learn the same little tricks he's learned. Once Roach learns those same tricks and can execute them without thinking twice, we can only assume the chip he has on his shoulder now will only get bigger, better and broad enough to help those behind him, so future teammates can rise up and pass the torch themselves.
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