By Randy York, The N-Sider
In the midst of all kinds of individual Nebraska football stories, features, plans and plots, Husker Nation would be wise to focus their respective attention on No. 88 Saturday in the annual Red-White Spring Game before more than 70,000 fans at Memorial Stadium.
Tyler Hoppes, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior tight end from Lincoln, Nebraska, deserves everyone’s attention if not devotion. He is, after all, Nebraska’s starter who competed relatively anonymously at Wayne (Neb.) State College before moving on and becoming a defensive end that got lost in Nebraska’s shuffle before emerging as a first-time letterwinner last year.
“I was super surprised to learn that Tyler was a walk-on when I came to Nebraska just because of the skill sets he has,” said Tanner Lee, a 6-4 220-pound junior quarterback from Destrehan, La. “With three seniors ahead of him, he didn’t get to play much last year because of Cethen Carter, Sam Cotton and Trey Foster. But he’s doing his thing now and showing that he’s a leader.”
Lee thought Hoppes “would play a lot last year, but there were talented guys with more experience,” he said. “I think Tyler is doing his thing. He comes to practice every day to make plays. He’s been super impressive day in and day out. He’s big like a tight end who’s good at carrying his body and making plays. You need a big guy to make big-time catches. I didn’t know Tyler or his story, but we’ll all find out what a big tight end can do when he can move like a slot receiver and carry his body to make big plays. For a quarterback, that's great to have.”
Ultra-positive reviews about Hoppes is a good thing because Lee also will make his debut with Nebraska’s loyal fan base Saturday afternoon. Lee was a proven performer and starter at Tulane and like Hoppes, he’s equally eager for the curtain to go up Saturday at 1 p.m.
Graduate Assistant Tavita Thompson Shares His Perspectives Coaching Tight Ends
Even though Hoppes is a walk-on, “he has so much finesse in his game with the way he runs his routes,” said Tavita Thompson, in his third year as a graduate assistant coach, working primarily with tight ends. “He’s making sure his routes are crisp. You can’t finesse everything. He knows where he’s lacking, and he’s working on it. He’s really pushing himself to get it done. He’s learned the position the same way Sam Cotton learned.”
Thompson reminded both the quarterback and the tight end that they were not going to overpower guys. “Sometimes those guys across from the tight ends are way bigger,” Thompson said, “so If we can clean it up technique-wise, you’ll be surprised how technique can supplement for physicality. Tyler is still trying to become a technician. He’s trying to do all the little things, and it’s helping him. Now, we just have to make sure he’s consistent and his muscle is right.”
Understanding why walk-on stories motivate everyone, Thompson credits Nebraska’s great history. “Everyone wants to be the next Andy Janovich,” he said. “Walk-ons are an important part of Nebraska football, and it means everything. They grew up around here and they want to play here. This entire state knows what Nebraska football is all about, and it means a lot to them. That goes along all the right lines. When you look for a player, you look for a guy who loves football. That’s really important because you have to love it to do it.”
Hoppes is positioned to make a big difference in his last year as a Husker. “You can’t ask for a better coach than Coach Tavita,” he said. “He knows his stuff, he explains it well, and he’s a class act. He just has the whole package and honestly, I’ve learned more from him in the last three years than anyone else.”
With no opportunity to come to Nebraska, Hoppes went to Wayne State as a tight end and played as a freshman. “Then I decided I wanted to come back home and try to play at Nebraska,” he said. “Josh Banderas really helped me through that. We went to the same high school and grew up together. It was a longshot, but I wanted to be back home, be with my family and try to play at the highest level possible.”
Walking On as a Defensive End, Hoppes Saw Opportunity with New Coaching Staff
Even though he was lucky to walk on as a defensive end and spend a year on the scout team, Hoppes saw opportunity with a new coaching staff. “I told Josh I think I’m better at tight end than defensive end because it feels more natural,” he said. “All I wanted was to try out and see if Nebraska football was still in my future. Josh told me I needed to talk to Tavita, and he brought me in with open arms. I played tight end as a redshirt sophomore on the scout team. The next year I worked hard and knew it was my final chance in spring ball. I did well last year and made fall camp as the fourth tight end.”
The key was to envision success and follow the Husker mantra – get better and better day after day. One of the biggest triggers was spending major volunteer time in the film room every day. “It helped me understand what I do well and what I do wrong,” he said.
Hoppes admits he had to scratch and claw just to get on the roster. “I was a long shot,” he said. “When I came on as a defensive end, there must have been 10 or 12 tight ends on the roster. I think my moment came when I was on Scout Team my redshirt sophomore year as a tight end. I was going against the first-team defense and doing a decent job blocking. I could run the route and catch the ball and started to gain some confidence. I felt like I could keep up with these guys. Right then and there, I decided I’m going to make a shot at this and get some playing time.”
Bando became his biggest cheerleader. “We both grew up in Lincoln,” Hoppes pointed out. “His dad played here and said there’s nothing like getting on the field and playing at Memorial Stadium. I did make an unofficial visit when I was in high school. I saw the 90,000 fans. I’ve always wanted to be here in front of the home crowd, but I had to take a different route.”
Competing at Nebraska “is awesome,” Hoppes said. “We’re rooting for each other and trying to get better every day. Doing extra work after practice helps. More time in the film room helps. You measure what you do well and what you do wrong. You work together every single day.”
Hoppes’ Turning Point: Fall Camp When He Was Four Names Down in Depth Chart
Three teammates are pivotal parts of Hoppes’s daily process – Connor Ketter, a 6-foot-5, 245-pound senior from Norfolk (Neb.), Matt Snyder, a 6-5, 250-pound sophomore from San Romo, Calif., and Jack Stoll, a 6-4, 250-pound redshirt freshman from Lone Tree, Colo.
“We all want to do well for Coach Tavita,” Hoppes said. “We’d like to be the ones who help him become a full staff member instead of just a graduate assistant. We have a strong mindset. We all want to be the No. 1 guy, even though all of us have limited game-day experience. But we’re working as hard as possible.”
Nerves for a walk-on senior tight end is a non-issue. “It’s always amazing going out in the front of our crowd and playing,” Hoppes said. “Once you get on the field, you kind of zone those people out. You’re so focused on the play, you kind of forget how full the stadium is until you look up there and see a whole crowd of red. There’s a lot of emotion at the start, but after a couple plays, everyone’s fine.”
The turning point for Hoppes was fall camp his junior year. “I was fourth-string and didn’t know how much playing time I was going to get behind our three seniors,” he said. “I was working hard every day. I worked on my receiving, on my blocking, on everything that I could. At this point last year, I felt I was ready to go out and do this, but we had three seniors who had earned their time. Coach Tavita brings the fire to football every day. Every player learns a lot from him, whether you’re on or off the field. He’s been through it all. I know he played tackle, but he knows tons about tight ends and what we’re all supposed to do. When it comes to running routes, catching balls and reigning them in, he’s just an all-around great coach.”
Hoppes was “absolutely” a long shot at Nebraska. “But you could see flashes of it last season,” Tavita said. “He would take some reps here and there in practice and you could see flashes of him doing things. You’d watch and say ‘Wow, this guy has something to him, so I sat him down, talked with him and let him know where he could be if he kept pushing himself like he was. Ever since that talk, he’s taken it upon himself to get where he can be.”
Football Lover Matt Snyder One of Those Guys You Never Question His Work Ethic
Others see the same opportunity. Snyder “loves football and he’s one of those guys that you never have to question his work ethic,” Tavita said. “He’s going to do every single thing he can year-round, whether it’s in the off-season or in the weight room. He studies film on his own time and is always into the playbook. He’s a smart guy. He’s one of those guys who has to change his body to move a certain way. He’s a little bit mechanical but he works so hard on fixing those things to make sure he’s a more fluid athlete. He’ll grind and stick his face in the sand. He loves the mentality here, and his work ethic is starting to show. Now that he’s not injured – and knock on wood, I hope it stays that way – if you get hurt, you get set back in your training and slow down and that hurts you. I pray that he does stay healthy.” and he continues on the path he’s on.”
Stoll spent all of last year with a wrist injury. “He came back toward the end of the season in bowl practice, but I never had the opportunity to work directly with him,” Tavita said. “We can’t stop now. Everyone has to move forward so you don’t get left behind. You have to learn a little bit by osmosis, and that’s what Jack did. He’s one of those guys who stays in the film room by himself, and I love that about him. His mentality is great, but it’s almost funny. Whatever I ask of him, he always says ‘I got you covered, coach!’”
The daily grind reflects Mike Riley, in his third season as Nebraska’s head football coach. “We always had a family atmosphere and a family-surrounding philosophy,” Tavita said. “I pray for him, and I love him. Coach Riley is one of the best men I’ve ever been around in my life. He’s influenced me a lot. I think some of that is my own coaching philosophy. I believe in the family that’s in the room. The best way I explain it to my guys is that we have to be a brotherhood. We have to be a family. If we’re on the field, who are you willing to sell out for the most? What’s going to make you really give that extra effort, playing for your buddy or playing for your brother? That’s the kind of camaraderie we need to have.
“We want to be so close-knit, tight and family-oriented that we’re willing to die for the guy next to us. That’s your brother. They eat together, they hang out together and they do everything together, whether they’re watching film on their own or texting, chatting or whatever you call it. They talk and communicate and you can tell they all love each other. It’s a good room to be in.”
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