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Tyler Legate and Austin Cassidy are hardly Nebraska football no-names this spring, but even if they were, they wouldn't mind. Obscurity has never been a bad word in either's vocabulary.
As juniors, they're working hard to find a more prominent place in the Husker lineup, but they did not walk on to make a name for themselves at Nebraska. They walked on to play whatever part they could on a championship team.
Spend 15 minutes with each, and one thing becomes crystal clear: Their hearts beat for one reason and one reason only in football - to do whatever it takes to help the Cornhuskers win.
"If my part of the game plan is being in there only on goal-line, short-yardage scoring plays designed to win the game, that's fine with me," Legate said. "If I get five reps or 30 reps, it doesn't matter. The only thing that ever matters to me is getting that "W" in the win column."
Cassidy carries the same attitude with him to practice every day. "If Coach Pelini came in and asked me to play nose tackle on the Scout Team, I'd do it every single day without asking questions," he said.
That, of course, will not happen. Cassidy is one of the primary candidates to replace close friend and fellow walk-on Matt O'Hanlon and Larry Asante as a starting safety. Legate is again the Huskers' leading candidate to play fullback in what everyone is expecting to be a more run-oriented offense.
Legate and Cassidy are good friends and play on the same team that won the Nebraska Intramural Dodge Ball championship last year. They're both so immersed in their schoolwork and spring football that neither has shaved for several days, and they have more in common than you'd think, especially when one grew up in Neligh and the other grew up in College Station, Texas, before moving to Lincoln his freshman year of high school.
There's a Little Cowboy in Both Walk-Ons
Neither is a cowboy, but both like the thought of being one.
Cassidy, whose favorite singer is George Strait, has decided to buy a nice new cowboy hat as a novelty before spring practice ends.
Legate, whose favorite singer is Kenny Chesney and favorite movie is 8 Seconds (about a bull rider), has limited financial resources, so he's spending his money on a new pair of cowboy boots.
Obviously, this one-time city slicker and traditional cowboy at heart aren't as odd together as you might expect.
"A bunch of us went to eat barbecue the other night, and Tyler got left behind," Cassidy said. "Every place you ever go with him, he knows somebody, or he knows somebody who knows somebody. He can talk forever. I guess he was talking with somebody he met in there, and nobody even noticed he wasn't with us when we left."
The two look at each other and break into laughter. It's a good way to break the intensity of their daily grind that consists of classes, eating, meetings, football practice, eating, studying for classes, studying for football and hitting the hay until the sun comes up on their next "groundhog day."
Make no mistake. While these two walk-ons do not have scholarships, they have the respect of their teammates, as well as the entire Husker coaching staff.
A former Nebraska state champion wrestler and honorary captain of the Class C-2 all-state team after rushing for 2,051 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior at Neligh-Oakdale, Legate carved a name for himself early last season, catching a 3-yard touchdown pass from Zac Lee in the second game of the season.
Cassidy Was a Captain at Mizzou Last Fall
A former Nebraska state high school pole vault champion who quarterbacked Lincoln Southwest to a perfect regular season while rushing for 1,507 yards as a senior, Cassidy established a name for himself early last season, too, when he walked out on the field at Missouri as one of the Huskers' four captains for a nationally televised game.
Mike McNeill and Keith Williams were the offensive captains that Thursday night, and Nebraska's coaching staff decided to honor Ndamukong Suh and Cassidy as the other captains, representing the Blackshirts and special teams.
Husker coaches have a goal for Nebraska to become the most physically dominant team in the Big 12 Conference, and Legate and Cassidy are two who take that goal to heart.
Cassidy, for instance, took out two Oklahoma players on the opening kickoff of Nebraska's upset win over Oklahoma. He helped set a physical tone in a game the Huskers desperately needed to win at home.
Legate has a physical knack of his own. In what was, at the time, a close game at Kansas, he delivered a cut block that took out a corner and a safety that helped spring Roy Helu loose for a 20-yard touchdown run.
It was a crucial block because Nebraska was facing a third down-and-10 situation with 6:30 remaining in the fourth quarter while trailing, 17-16. Once Helu scored and Lee hit Niles Paul with a two-point conversion, the Huskers were up 24-17 en route to a 31-17 win.
"He's a tough nut," Nebraska Running Backs Coach Tim Beck said of Legate. "He's tenacious. If you watch him, he blocks his guy to the whistle all the time. He really gets after them."
Billy Legate Gave His Younger Cousin Advice
There's a reason for that. Billy Legate, Tyler's cousin and a four-year Nebraska letterman fullback (1995-96-97-98), gave Tyler some sound advice when he decided to transfer from South Dakota to see if he could make it as a walk-on at Nebraska.
"He told me to go hard every play every day, whether my teammates like it or not," Tyler said.
That very mindset is what differentiates Nebraska from other programs.
"It's just like Coach Pelini says: It's all about focusing on the process and learning how to compete hard every day, every play," Legate said.
"I've tried to be as physical as I could be, even in high school, running the option and taking people on instead of running out of bounds," Cassidy said. "I grew up never being satisfied with what I've done and always trying to get better every day. No matter what you can do, you can always do just a little bit better. You just need to keep working hard and give it everything you have."
Cassidy and Legate apply the same principles academically. Cassidy has a better than 3.8 GPA as a psychology major. He's made the Big 12 Commissioner's Academic Honor Roll every semester.
Legate also has stepped up his academic performance and has earned the same Big 12 honor as an elementary education major.
One Tough Cowboy Wants to Teach Young Kids
"It's interesting," Cassidy said of Legate. "Tyler will take on anybody on a football field. I mean, he's one of the toughest guys on the team. But there's another side to him. He wants to be an elementary school teacher, not attack defensive players and put them on their back all the time."
The punch line draws some more laughter, yet Cassidy and Legate know the mere mention of physicality is not a myth in Nebraska football.
In the first few days of spring practice, for instance, they've seen some tempers flare and some extra-curricular activity, especially between the offensive and defensive lines.
They both find it interesting that so many walk-ons are perfectly suited to survive, maybe even thrive, when Nebraska football gets ultra-physical.
They think Mike Caputo, who is battling to succeed Jacob Hickman as the Huskers' starting center, is one of the toughest players on the team. Off the top of their heads, Legate and Cassidy also think that such fellow walk-ons as Jim Ebke, Thomas Grove, Mike Hays, Austin Jones, Matt May and Lance Thorell are physical players as well.
Cassidy and Legate insist that fans will see a more physical football team in the annual Red-White Spring Game on April 17.
"The defense will definitely play faster than we've ever played before on defense," Cassidy said. "Everybody will play faster because this is our third year understanding the concepts we've been taught."
The offense will be "bigger and meaner," Legate said, "because our offensive line is bigger and meaner."
Fans won't see the conservative offense that was designed to minimize mistakes when the Huskers battled consistently nagging injuries most of last season, especially in the offensive line.
This Offense Seeks Holiday Bowl Effectiveness
"The offense everyone will see this year," Legate said, "will be more like what they saw in the Holiday Bowl."
In other words, competition is on, every play, every day, and these two walk-ons fully support that philosophy.
"Whatever it takes to win," Cassidy said.
"We're all in this for the same reason ... to win a championship," Legate added.
Voices from Husker Nation
Great story. Glad to see the old style Husker football coming back. Hope Bo (and I think he will) stays for a long, long time. Lee Stephenson