Randy York's N-Sider
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Imagine growing up in Nebraska when Tom Osborne's Big Red juggernaut was at its best, winning 60 of 63 games and three national championships in a five-year span. Imagine watching that sustained streak of extraordinary effort and enabled excellence on television.
No wonder kids growing up in Nebraska at that time remember those teams with reverence and respect and recall how they envisioned living similar dreams during make-believe games in their own backyards.
Mike Caputo, Nebraska's 6-foot-1, 275-pound senior starter at center, was 8-years-old when Osborne capped his career with his last team's blowout national championship win over a Peyton Manning-led Tennessee in the Orange Bowl.
Mathew May, the Huskers' 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior linebacker who has earned three letters and elite status as a special teams star, was 9-years-old when that 1997 Nebraska team had everybody talking.
Caputo (from Omaha) and May (from Imperial, Neb.) are both walk-ons. They remember how special Osborne's final season was as a Hall-of-Fame coach, and both know why it was so extraordinary - because everyone on that team sacrificed. They worked hard together in practice. They beat each other up on weekdays and became a unified force on Saturdays.
Osborne's national championship teams were all for one and one for all, and Caputo wants Nebraska's 2011 team to have that same kind of mindset. It's the only approach he can envision for this historic Nebraska team to succeed as a first-year member in the Big Ten Conference, the nation's oldest.
"I feel really blessed to be here and have the opportunity to contribute to something like this," Caputo said. "Leadership really is critical. We all have to step up, including me. It's kind of our time to take over the reins. That has to be a big emphasis for all of us."
A Talent-Rich Defense Seeking One Psyche
Competing for a Blackshirt at linebacker at the same time he's a special teams leader, May agrees wholeheartedly with Caputo. "Expectations are high, really high this year," he said, adding that this defense reminds him of the teams he grew up watching - teams that had loads of talent, but just one psyche.
"We have a lot of great players on defense, but no ego," May said. "We want to be a complete defensive team ... one with no holes ... one that holds each other accountable every single play. If we stay on task, I think we can be that kind of defense."
Caputo and May never will be the type to make outlandish predictions, but last week, both expressed confidence in and excitement for a potential championship-caliber team.
"You can feel the excitement on the practice field," Caputo said. "The coaches are excited. The players are excited. There's a lot of tempo and a lot of physicality going on."
The coaches are implementing a new offense and stressing all the old-school principles that made Nebraska a tradition-rich championship team - effort, finishing every play, fundamentals, footwork, knowledge ... all the things that drew Caputo and May to Nebraska in the first place.
"I remember my dad taking me to a few Nebraska games when I was in elementary school," Caputo said. "I was all wide-eyed every time I walked into that stadium."
From Wide-Eyed Walk-On to Offensive Leader
Now that he's also walked on, become a starter and is emerging as a strong leader, Caputo accepts the challenge with a certain hunger and extreme humility. "Yes sir," he said, "it's a great honor to walk on here and represent a school like Nebraska and the great tradition we have. I'm very proud to carry on the tradition of guys who play here now, guys who played before we did, and guys who will follow us when we leave."
May has equal respect for the challenge. "I dreamed about playing here, and I want to help others dream about the same opportunity," he said. "I still remember looking back at all that tradition in the early '90s. I was just a small-town Nebraska kid, but I knew how special and how strong those teams were. They became part of a one-of-a-kind achievement and set the standard for the rest of us to follow."
Imperial is roughly a three-hour drive from the front range of Colorado, but its gravitational pull is, was and always will be Lincoln's Memorial Stadium, according to May, who, as a grade-schooler, remembers time almost standing still whenever the Huskers were on television, which he recalls being "almost always".
"I remember watching the Makovickas (walk-ons Jeff and Joel) and knowing they came from a small town (Brainard, Neb.) just like I did, so they must have grown up just like me," May said. "You get inspired watching small-town kids play a role on big-time teams. You see them making plays against all those recruits from Texas and Florida. The more you watch, the more you think that anything's possible. It gives you hope. You think to yourself: 'If they can do it, why not me?'"
Indeed, why not?
Ever since Matt May ran down the field and made a tackle against Iowa State as a redshirt freshman, he has given his heart and soul to Nebraska football.
For Both Husker Seniors, It's a Season of 'Lasts'
"My goal is still to be a Blackshirt," May said. "This is an incredible year - a year where there's going to be a lot of lasts - last winter conditioning, last spring practice, last spring game, last summer conditioning, last fall camp, last chance to be a champion. I'm not taking anything for granted. I don't want to be satisfied with anything, and I want to enjoy everything."
May sees the same attitude around him. "Jared Crick and Baker Steinkuhler are going to have great years," he said, "and whoever emerges at defensive end will get it done, too. JP (John Papuchis) has all those guys fired up. They're working their tails off."
Lavonte David and Alfonzo Dennard are potential preseason All-Americans on defense, but May sees others who can evolve into standouts. "Will Compton and Sean Fisher are playing great at linebacker," he said. "Ciante Evans is really coming along in the secondary, and (fellow walk-on) Austin Cassidy probably understands the defense as well as anyone. He always seems to be in the right place to make a play."
May's confidence in this defense is heavily based on experience and coaching.
"We've had guys in this system for three years now," May said. "That's a huge advantage. We're able to do so much more in the system now. We're seeing a lot more on-field checks. Just knowing what to do will allow the Pelinis to open up their playbook a little bit more. Coach Bo and Coach Carl spent three years teaching the principles and implementing the system. Now, they can do more with it."
In a strange sort of way, the same is somewhat true on the offense, even though new coordinator Tim Beck is just now laying the foundation for what he wants to see next fall.
Make Room for Legate's Blockbusting Finale
May has already seen offensive wrinkles this spring that can scare a defense. Take Tyler Legate, a 5-foot-10, 235-pound senior walk-on fullback.
"He's a hard-nosed kid and works his tail off year-round," May said. "Football is a good way for him to express his personality because his motor is always running."
Pointing to an option play that "caught us off-guard" this spring, May said: "It was surprising to see Tyler just put his head down and run people over. We joke around with him in the locker room, but we're hoping certain things can happen. The offense is really keying in on and finding things that can work for them."
And that's a good thing. "I grew up watching a very physical style of Nebraska offense, and I think we're headed in that direction," May said. "With those running backs and tight ends, they'll run right at you."
Caputo loves the physical nature of it all. "The coaches are all about effort, finishing and fundamentals," he said. "They've made it pretty simple, so they can just try and turn us loose. We're still very assignment-focused, but they're really trying to push the concept of us putting our heads down and just going all out.
"The key is getting us to go beyond the concepts so we understand the how and why of everything we're doing," Caputo said. "For instance, if it's a zone scheme, we have to know instantly what we need to do and what needs to happen and then just go after it like crazy. We definitely have a long way to go, but we're also definitely on the right track."
Caputo Praises Fellow Seniors Jones and Hardrick
Caputo is glad to see Austin Jones, a senior I-back from Aurora, Colo., working hard and challenging for playing time.
In the offensive line, "Yoshi (6-foot-7, 325-pound senior Jermarcus Hardrick) has come a long, long way this spring," Caputo said. "He's really getting after it and turning it loose. Andrew Rodriguez is going to be a stud. We're definitely seeing some young lineman (such as Jake Cotton and fellow walk-on Spencer Long) show that they can play."
Caputo sees seasoned underclassmen Rex Burkhead, Taylor Martinez and Ben Cotton taking on more visible and more valuable leadership roles on offense.
"I think Taylor went through a lot of stuff as a freshman, but he's working his butt off in practice," Caputo said. "He's going to be all right."
That, of course, depends in large part on the line in front of him providing the protection required to unleash a productive, more time-consuming, more physical offense.
Beck now has two full-time assistants coaching the offensive line - Barney Cotton and John Garrison.
"Both were great players here. They know what it takes to play the offensive line," Caputo said. "An extra set of hands and an extra set of eyes will only make us better. It really has been a blessing to play here. I've loved the entire experience, and I just hope we can end it on a high note."
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Voices from Husker Nation
It's really cool to see and hear leaders like Caputo and May step up. There are going to be some things that this defense needs to mend before the 2011 season. And the way the offense went out in 2010, well, it needs to be fixed. More than anything right now, I would love to see Mathew get his Blackshirt. As for Caputo, he is going to be a very special guy this season. We're going to need him to help rebuild this offensive line. We have a pretty young line this season, so I'm happy that guys are stepping up and they are striving beyond other people's expectations. That is Nebraska Football! Susanna Hall, Lincoln, Nebraska
Saw the Tweet and enjoyed reading your column. After finishing, all I could think of was here are two seniors with the character and the fire to be leaders on a team that will make history on the first snap in Madison, Wis. For Husker fans, win or lose, the 2011 team will always be remembered for being part of "As the world turns". Tom Anderson, Lakewood, Colorado
Love having a guy that has shown he'll play hurt at the center of attack and having a speedster willing to risk life and limb on special teams. These two walk-ons have the heart AND the soul. They are leaders in every sense of the word. Good luck Mike Caputo and Matt May! May the force be with both of you!! GBR!!! Steve Swanson, Scottsdale, Arizona