NU's Pick Five: Alfonzo Dennard, Rickey Thenarse, DeJon Gomes, P.J. Smith and Anthony West.
Photo by Scott Bruhn/Nebraska Communications

Thenarse, Gomes, West, Dennard and Smith Use Deep Family Ties for Inspiration

By NU Athletic Communications
Randy York's N-Sider

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You saw Rickey Thenarse and DeJon Gomes fly above the intended receivers last Saturday and turn NFL-like interceptions into 47- and 40-yard touchdowns that would have made Charlie Greene, Nebraska's own Olympic gold medal sprinter, proud.

If those two picks didn't bring you out of your stadium seat or your favorite chair, Husker teammates Anthony West, Alfonso Dennard and P.J. Smith added their own acrobatics to the highlight reel, plucking footballs out of the sky like athletic kids catching potatoes in Idaho.

Watching such aggressive ball hawking and aerial piracy made me think of an old line in an old movie that won four Academy Awards two decades before any of these five Huskers were born.

The movie featured Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy and Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid.

Newman couldn't believe what he was seeing so he asked Redford: "I couldn't do that. Could you do that? How can they do that? Who are these guys?"

We'll get to the definitive answers here shortly, but rest assured, we weren't the only ones in awe.

Ekeler: 'Greatest Secondary Performance I've Ever Seen'

"Greatest secondary performance I've ever seen," Nebraska Linebacker Coach Mike Ekeler said of last week's game against Idaho, knowing full well that Prince Amukamara and Eric Hagg -- the Huskers' two biggest playmakers in the secondary - weren't even part of this dazzling display.

"Ek's a little overzealous at times," said Marvin Sanders, the Huskers' secondary coach. "It was great to see those five handle the ball so they could make some big plays and showcase their offensive skills, but one game does not a season make."

No need to remind this particular Pick Five as they reinforce each other at the same time each enhances his own reputation.

"They know and understand that they can be better and more consistent because all five of those guys have bought into the system," Sanders said. "They believe in what Coach (Bo) Pelini has been talking about in terms of process. Any time you have a group of young men who believe in a coaching system, you have the opportunity to be pretty special."

Sanders paused a second, then finished. "Just like Prince and Eric, those five have surrendered themselves to the University of Nebraska and the process that Coach Pelini has put into place," he said. "That's where it all starts."

We would be the last to dispute Sanders' statement, but it does beg an interesting question. If we really want to know who these guys are, maybe we should ask all five who inspires them outside of their daily football grind and what helps them put their whole hearts and minds into such a rigorous, ultra-demanding defensive system.

You will enjoy hearing their answers:

Rickey Thenarse, Senior Safety, Los Angeles, California

On his mom (Kathy Wooten): "We talk three times a day. If I don't call her, she calls me. She was a big part of me being able to come back from the knee injury that took me off the field. She's the one who helped me recover, stay focused and persevere while we waited to see if I would get a medical redshirt. She's the one who kept me in good spirits every day and kept me motivated on my school work and the hard work that I had to go through in physical therapy. I could not have done it without my mom encouraging me and praying with me on the phone every day. As far as I'm concerned, we made this comeback together, even though we were halfway across the country from each other."

DeJon Gomes, Senior Safety, Hayward, California

On his mom (Deon Goolsby): "We're real close and talk two to three times every day. She's been an investigator in the Public Defender's office for about 15 years, and she's like one of my best friends. She's from a big family and the one who passed on the importance of hard work to me. She's always there for me and has my back through thick and thin. She's made my life easier. One day, when I have kids, I only hope that I can be as good a parent as she's been to me."

Anthony West, Senior Cornerback, San Diego, California

On his dad (Robert West) and his grandma (Opal West): "My dad played almost five years in the NFL, so he's always been able to relate his experiences to mine. I learned from him how to be physical and why you have to give great effort all the time. When he was playing, my grandma had a huge influence on my life because she was the one who taught me how to enjoy every day and why you don't take anything for granted. She appreciated life in general and knew how to take it all in. It might be the most important thing I've learned. She definitely helped me become more mature and relate to the culture of new coaches."

Alfonzo Dennard, Junior Cornerback, Rochelle, Georgia

On his older brother Andrew Benjamin: "He's 16 years older than I am, but he's been on my tail since I as yay-high. I was young and kind of small, but he's the one who made me become so physical in football. He was always roughing me up, even yelling at me to get better. He was always pushing me to get to the next level, and that's why I always looked up to him. I think he had the same kind of potential I did, but my daddy wasn't around, so he had to step up and fill that role. He's been the man in my life - both a brother and a dad. He's made me the player I am today and the man I am today. Whenever I'm in a pinch, I call him, and he solves everything. He has a son playing high school football now, so he won't make it to a game until Texas. That's the game we both picked."

P.J. Smith, Sophomore Safety, River Ridge, Louisiana

On his older brother, Corey Smith: "I'm inspired by my entire family - my mom, dad, two brothers and two sisters - all six of them. But my greatest inspiration comes from Corey, who is 26 now. He was born with spina bifida and wasn't even supposed to live. He's paralyzed from the waist down and has been in a wheelchair every day that I've known him. He was at our first two games and my interception came in the opposite direction of where he was sitting, but I knew where he was and how excited he would be. Since I can remember, he's been my inspiration to keep going and keep pushing myself when things get tough. What I go through is nothing compared to what he's been through over the course of his life. He's had 13 surgeries, yet remains very positive. I think anyone could learn from him."

We told you that you'd enjoy hearing what inspires these magnificent young men who looked like flying machines last Saturday.

Sanders Offers His Takes on Last Week's Pick Five

Now, it's time for Sanders to tell you what he likes about each of them:

Rickey Thenarse: "Ricky is a player who just loves football. It's still a game to him. It's exciting to see Rickey, who still has that kid in him like he's out there just playing the game in his back yard. More than anything, Rickey has fun, and you need to remind yourself of that sometimes - how important having fun really is in this game."

DeJon Gomes: "He's a leader, always the first one in the office to watch film and usually the last to leave. The game means so much to him. He's the guy on the sidelines - the one who cares so much about his teammates. If an offensive guy's not doing something he's supposed to be doing, it hurts him. He's a real perfectionist. You can see in his eyes how serious he is and what this game means to him."

Anthony West: "The thing I really like about Anthony is how mature he is. When he lost his starting job last year, he understood. He's such a high character young man and so versatile. He can play nickel, cornerback or safety. He's a very positive person. He has his head on straight and brings a certain aura with him. Every guy on this team respects Anthony because of who he is and what he stands for."

Alfonzo Dennard: "This young man impresses me because he really wants to learn and be the best. He's willing to work as hard and do whatever he needs to do to become the absolute best. He's a competitor and shows that every chance he gets, no matter what. He never stops and is always pushing. I would call him relentless and so would our receivers."

P.J. Smith: "For a young man who's only been here a couple of years, he's very mature. He understands football unlike any other guy his age. He knows our scheme. Even though he's young, he can get everybody lined up and in the places they're supposed to be. He's a very vocal leader and a young man who will keep getting better every year he's here."

Check the Bios and Feast on the Offensive Stats

Check the bios for all five players featured in this column, and you'll see another important thread that ties them together - their impressive abilities as offensive players in high school. They parallel the two biggest playmakers in the secondary - 1) Amukamara, the Arizona State High School Player of the Year who was the state's best offensive player, a state champion sprinter and a point guard in basketball; and 2) Hagg, who was 80 yards shy of being a 1,000-yard receiver in his senior year of high school in Arizona.

"Prince, Eric and all five of these guys were outstanding offensive players in high school," Sanders said. "P.J. is always talking about the great moves he had as a running back, and Rickey was an excellent option quarterback."

Gomes said he grew up as a running back and made a habit of trying to score a touchdown on every play. West generated nearly 1,700 offensive yards as a prep senior, and Dennard caught 39 passes for 780 yards and scored 14 touchdowns.

Make no mistake. In high school, Nebraska's standout defensive backs were the best athletes, and their prep coaches made sure the ball got into their hands as often as possible.

"Those guys who played offense probably wish they still could," Sanders said, "so the whole objective is to be as offensive as you can as a defensive player - whether that means you're intercepting a pass or causing a fumble and picking it up. I think deep inside all of them, they'd like to get that ball in their hands, so they can showcase what they're capable of and then say: 'See, I should have been playing on offense.'"

As impressive as last week's five interceptions were against Idaho, they were not nearly as crucial as last year's five Husker interceptions against Oklahoma.

Who knows? Maybe a couple of these guys, or more, will show Washington and Jake Locker what they can do with the football after they take it away and see how long they can keep it.

One thing is fairly certain. If that happens, no one reading this will be asking "Who are these guys?"

Respond to Randy

Voices from Husker Nation

We definitely have the best defensive backs in the country. Watching them swarm around the ball today was amazing. They made one of the most decorated quarterbacks look like a lost little girl. Although I live in the heart of Gator and Seminole country, I will forever bleed red. GBR! Brandon Muchmore, Jacksonville, Florida

It was nice to see Alfonzo Dennard show Jake Locker what he can do with a football after he gets it in his hands. The replay made it look like he flew sideways before heading to the end zone. Bet his older brother was proud. Nice work on this story. Joe Thompson, Everett, Washington

Loved the offense, every bit of it, but when a secondary shuts down a likely first-round draft choice and holds him to atrocious  numbers (4 of 20 passing, 71 yards, two interceptions), the secondary gets my game ball and vote for MVP. Good timing on featuring these guys and making sure that Hagg and Amukamara were included. Eric got the first interception and Prince got lots of air time. Great group of players with the ability to take us to a BCS national championship game. Ed Scott, Ft. Worth, Texas  

Wow. What a great story on our ball-hawking secondary. Gives us tremendous insight on what makes them tick and why they're all so driven to be the best. No wonder they're so successful as a group as well as individually. Also loved the Huskers Sports Network piece on Rickey Thenarse. Everyone should listen to that. It speaks volumes and makes you appreciate everything that that young man accomplishes. To me, it's a recruiting pitch for others just as much as it's a testimonial to how Nebraska has embraced Rickey and how he's embraced Nebraska. Well done. Steve Smith, Overland Park, Kansas

I enjoy reading stories about Nebraska football players and what inspires them to do what they do. I found all five of their stories interesting and so very real. Rickey and DeJon's relationships with their moms are special and reveal why they can relate so well to their coaches and teammates. Same for Anthony's dad and grandma. And what can you say about Alonzo's and P.J.'s older brothers? They're both great examples of overcoming adversity. Reading this, you can just tell the impact that each family member has. These players are all so different and yet so similar because their stories involve love and trust. Thanks for taking the time to dig deeper than the players' stats so we can understand and appreciate their character. Susan Miller, Omaha, Nebraska 




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