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Nebraska's only married football player on this year's team was one of the last to leave the locker room Saturday after the Huskers' 28-7 win over Maryland. Ross Dzuris declined a handful of requests for interviews, so he could join his wife and family to celebrate Nebraska's 7-0 sweep of 2016 opponents at home.
The win earned a No. 15 national ranking Sunday in the Coaches Poll and No 17 in the AP Poll. The outcome creates an opportunity for the Huskers to double their regular-season win total from five to 10 with a triumph on Friday at Iowa. Kickoff for the annual Heroes Game is set for 2:30 p.m. with a national television audience on ABC.
Dzuris was his usual humble self Saturday and more than willing to let the headlines and limelight go anywhere but his direction. The fifth-year senior from Plattsmouth, Neb., deserved extra time for contemplation inside Memorial Stadium, so I asked four others to measure his stature within the team: 1) his defensive coordinator; 2) the Huskers' leading tackler of the day; 3) Nebraska's top sack leader of the day; and 4) his strength and conditioning coach. To a man, they raved about Dzuris' impact with his fellow Blackshirts, which yielded 11 yards rushing on Maryland's 25 attempts. The responses from all four were immediate, sincere and packed with admiration, appreciation and respect for the impact Dzuris has had with his fellow Blackshirts.
“In fall camp, I was asked who’s the most underrated player on the team,” Nebraska Defensive Coordinator Mark Banker said after Saturday’s game. “I said Ross Dzuris immediately. There was no doubt about it, and 11 games later, that’s still the case. Ross doesn’t fit into that triangular box, but he’s still our most underrated player. He’s quiet and mild-mannered. All he does is give you 100 percent all the time, just like he did today. He has really good football intellect. He’s a great technician, a great young man and works as hard as anyone we have. He doesn’t look like a physical being, but he can be as physical as anyone on our team.”
Josh Banderas, who led the Blackshirts with nine tackles Saturday, agrees with his defensive coordinator. “There’s no question Ross is our most underrated player,” he said. “He’s the ultimate technician. I think it’s his personality. He’s not loud, not a showboat and doesn’t want to be up front. He wants to stay behind, do his job and do it perfect. Nobody brings him out into the spotlight because he doesn’t want it. All he cares about is making plays. He’s just a shy walk-on from Plattsmouth, Nebraska. That’s who he is. He’s as passionate as anyone on the team.”
Freedom Akinmoladun led the Huskers with two sacks for 15 yards in losses and two tackles for loss for 15 more minus yards. Not surprisingly, Nebraska’s sophomore defensive end starter was more impressed with Dzuris’ 7-yard sack and two tackles for seven yards in losses. “Ross may be the greatest guy I’ve ever played with,” Freedom told me. “Wow. That’s all I can say about him. He’s a team player and maybe the biggest part of our brotherhood. It’s going to be a huge loss when he isn’t out there next year. I’ve learned a lot from him. I call him Mr. Perfect because he doesn’t do anything without perfection in mind. He really doesn’t do anything wrong. It’s crazy. You learn from him in everything he does because that’s his craft. He’s the role model for the entire defensive line. He’s our leader and always showing us the right way.”
Mark Philipp, the Huskers’ strength and conditioning coach, knows that Dzuris is quiet, “but he’s like controlled chaos,” Philipp said following Nebraska’s decisive win leading up to the regular-season finale. “Ross is strong, a hard worker and does everything the Nebraska way,” Philipp said. “You need lunchpail kind of guys who work hard and embrace the grind. That’s what Dzyris does. That’s what his job is. That’s also Coach Riley’s rule — do the right thing all the time.”
Mike Riley on Ross Dzuris: One of Those Guys that Acts Like and Thinks Like an Old Pro
Philipp’s comment was ironic and timely. Mike Riley was in an almost vacant elevator after last Monday’s press conference. He was heading to the training table to eat a quick lunch, so I told him I was writing a senior story on Dzuris. Nebraska’s head coach volunteered his own thoughts without even being asked.
Six floors and a quick trip down to the West Stadium lobby captured the essence of why so many Nebraska coaches and Husker teammates believe Dzuris earns everyone’s respect because he does everything right — on the field and off the field.
“Ross is mature and hard-working,” Riley said. “He’s a combination of who he is as a person, the work he puts in athletically, the toughness he shows every day and just being smart about everything he does. Put all of that together, and it’s a big deal, especially when he decides to walk on at Nebraska and earn a scholarship.”
Climbing steps is a tough road in college football because of all the ruts. “Ross has had to do special things since he’s been here,” Riley said. “He’s a pretty easy guy to coach. We’ve never had to worry about him. He’s ready, he’s there, and he’s always engaged. He’s almost like one of those guys that I’ve been around that acts like and thinks like an old pro.”
Giving a senior walk-on starter an “old pro” tag just might be the ultimate compliment from Riley, a former NFL head coach in San Diego.
Parrella: Dzuris is Like an Old Pro Because He Works His Tail Off Every Day
I ask John Parrella, who has spent a good chunk of his life in the NFL, if Dzuris fits that mold. “He’s a great guy. He’s a coach’s kid, and his dad is a high school coach in Nebraska,” Parrella said. “Ross is like an old pro because he works his tail off every single day.”
No wonder Parrella calls Dzuris “Coach Ross”. “I think he should be a coach when he’s done playing,” Parrella told me. “He understands the game and understands what we’re looking for. He really does work hard every day and tries to get better and better every single day.”
Better and better is a vital part of Nebraska’s Tunnel Walk chant psych-up. “In our room, we really believe that big time,” Parrella said. “And I know our team understands that. We are getting better or we are getting worse. That is really the essence of what all of this comes down to.”
Ross Dzuris got better every day. “We’re blessed with some seniors that are great guys and great leaders. They work hard and understand what we’re trying to accomplish” Parrella said. “Ross is very mature. He’s married and just does everything right. He comes up and watches film and spends a lot of time up here with our coaching staff. We will miss him.”
Dzuris told me that his father, the head coach at Plattsmouth (Neb.) High School, did indeed motivate him. “He just knows that I’m a pretty motivated person myself and he does a good job of keeping me humble,” Dzuris said. “He’s someone that I can talk football with outside of here. He knows so much about the game and the system. I draw a lot from his knowledge.”
Day-by-Day More than a Chant; Dzuris Says That’s What Game Day is All About
The day-by-day phrase is more than a chant to Dzuris. “That’s what we say in our room,” he said. “If we get better, then we’ll be fine. That’s what game day is all about.”
Dzuris inherited the chills of playing for Nebraska from fellow defensive lineman Jack Gangwish, another walk-on who beat major odds. “We were on scout team for quite a while together,” Dzuris said. “Seeing him finally getting an opportunity was pretty great, and it definitely motivated me.”
Embracing moments in fall camp that prove you’re getting the opportunity inspires Dzuris. “When there’s something you may not have been very good at finally works, you see growth and you realize that you deserve to be here,” Dzuris said. “I’m getting better and that helps when you’re coachable. When you do something that coach says and it works, that’s when you can tell you really can make plays on Saturdays.”
Since Saturday was Dzuris’ curtain call at Memorial Stadium, he soaked it all in and made sure he was among the last to leave the locker room. “It’s the end of the home games but not the end of the season,” Dzuris said. “I’m sure I’ll feel the emotion of playing for the last time when it’s all done, but I was just trying to get ready for what’s next in Iowa.”
Dzuris remains close with fellow senior Logan Rath. “We hung out together at the Shrine Bowl,” he said. “I didn’t know he was going to end up here, too, so that was pretty cool. I’m close with a lot of those guys who played in the Shrine Bowl together”
When walk-ons break through the barriers to start games for the Huskers and make plays, confidence builds and motivation multiplies. “It’s fun to see everybody step up,” Dzuris said. “I never really needed motivation from other guys, but when you see a good friend starting, it almost feels like it’s part of you because you care so much about these guys. It’s always good to see your brothers have success.”
Ross: Sometimes, You Just Make a Huge Jump, and You’re a Completely Different Player
According to Dzuris, it’s often difficult to know when you keep getting a little bit better. “Sometimes,” Dzuris said, “you just make a huge step and one day you’re just kind of a completely different player when it all comes together. It’s kind of a crazy feeling when you grow so much, and it feels like it’s just been an instant.”
Several months into marriage, Dzuris credits his wife for helping him improve. “She’s always been very supportive,” he said. “It’s been great to have here in my life. Ever since we’ve been married, I can go home and leave all the worries of practice behind. She always has my back and is always there for me. We started dating in high school, so we know each other very well.”
There is, however, a new rule in the Dzuris house. “She’ll let me talk about football for a little bit, but after that, football just kind of goes away,” he said. “I have a life outside of football and it’s good to live it and just unwind and relax. That’s been very good for me this season.”
The overall steadiness is reminiscent of Dzuris’ “awesome experience” playing high school football. “He’s always been a dad first and a coach second,” he said of his father. “He’s always known how to balance football with life. It’s just been great to have someone that understands football and everything that comes along with it.”
Dzuris intends to give pro football a try. “I think I will,” he said. “I mean, it’s worth a shot. I’m just kind of worried about myself getting better these last couple weeks, and then, maybe after the bowl game, I can worry about something big.”
Dzuris: Coach Parrella Being Here is One of the Best Things That Ever Happened to Me
Ross Dzuris knows this. “Coach Parrella being here is probably one of the best things that ever happened to me, and I think it’s one of the best things that has happened to this program in a long time,” Dzuris said. “He’s been like another father figure to me. Since day one, he’s taught me so much. He’s worked so hard to get us better, and he brings so much energy every day. He’s just a great coach to play for.”
Parrella enjoys showing young men “the light of what they can really do in the essence of getting better and to be a really good football player,’’ Dzuris said. “Ross really jumped on some of those things that he needed to do and accept the challenge.”
“One thing that our young guys have learned from Ross is that it can take four or five years before you actually become good enough to get on the field, and he’s still getting better,” Parrella said of Dzuris. “I wish I had him for another year. Ross and Kevin Maurice both had untapped potential, and I don’t think it’s going to stop. They have a lot of game left in them and a lot left in their tank. If we had four Kevin’s and four Ross’s, we’d be pretty darn good.”
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