quarter century ago, New York Times writer Malcolm Moran spent 10 days
in Lincoln, trying to figure out why Nebraska was such a football power and if
a team loading up on walk-ons was following all the rules or finding ways to
get around them.
hearing all kinds of rumors and innuendoes about Nebraska’s fabled
walk-on program, Moran decided local writers knew the situation better than
national writers, the eternal skeptics.
all these guys were so great, why didn’t somebody else recruit ‘em out of high
school?” Moran asked me. “It’s not like Nebraska gets players other people
that’s not always true, and especially not in the unique case of redshirt
sophomore wide receiver Tyler
Wullenwaber, a talented multi-sport walk-on who competed in football,
basketball and track at Centennial High School in Utica, Neb.
the record show that a Division I coach did offer Wullenwaber a scholarship, and
it was from the same school he dreamed about playing for – Nebraska. The rub
was the offer came from Gary
Pepin, the Huskers head track and field coach.
Offered Him a Scholarship
most successful head coach in Big 12 Conference history in any sport, Pepin offered
Wullenwaber financial aid, and it wasn’t because he was betting on
extraordinary development to produce an exceptional athlete.
Wullenwaber, 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, was and still is an exceptional athlete.
In high school, he ran a 10.5 in the 100 meters and a 21.6 in the 200 meters.
He long jumped 24-1 and high jumped 6-9 … impressive feats whether you’re in
the big-school prep ranks or in Classes B and C, where Wullenwaber competed.
kid on the team, I think,” said fellow walk-on defensive tackle Justin
Jackson. “He has everyone’s respect.” Fellow fleet-footed wide receiver
Bellagreed this week after watching Wullenwaber compete with Nebraska’s
No. 2 offensive unit.
you’re looking for more credibility, ask Alfonzo
Dennard, Nebraska’s First-Team All-Big Ten Conference defensive back
and possible first-round NFL draft choice. When Dennard came back from injury
last season, he was impressed with the way Scout Teamer Wullenwaber raced right
by him in practice and went out of his way to tell the walk-on how fast he is
and how difficult he is to cover.
kid’s tough, too. Would you believe he’s already had three shoulder surgeries?
The third one was a joint decision among Nebraska’s medical staff, position
Fisher and “Wully”, who played through considerable pain last August,
September and early into October before Fisher convinced him to get his
shoulder fixed. That way, he could be ready for spring football and compete for
time on the field in 2012.
Wear Todd Peterson’s No. 17
no mistake. Nebraska coaches and Husker athletes believe Tyler Wullenwaber, who
changed his #26 jersey to #17 next fall so he could wear the same number
walk-on role model Todd
Petersonwore, has what it takes to play on Saturdays.
key questions are when does that opportunity launch and what are his best chances to
get that highly coveted playing time?
is where the Tyler Wullenwaber Story parallels classic walk-on stories from
yesterday. Now the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism at Penn State, Moran
considered NU walk-ons “true phenomenons” then and still does now.
is supposed to be an age of instant gratification for athletes at almost all
levels,” Moran said. “Yet you have players who will go to Nebraska on blind
faith. They’re willing to get pushed and shoved, yelled at and lift weights for
three or four years just to play one or two years.”
does not dispute that notion, and if he can stay healthy, he wants to
accelerate that timetable by at least a year because he has three years of
He Wants is to Have a Role
just want to have a role on the team,” he said. “Last summer, I was feeling
pretty low. I didn’t think I was going to get invited to be one of the 105 at
fall camp. When I got that invitation, it meant a lot to me. It gave me a big
shot of confidence. It made me realize they believed in me.”
can get inside the psyches of the best athletes. Effort has never been an issue
for this young man. “I get my work ethic from my dad (Donald),” he said. “He
works hard at everything he does, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes,
high school, as a wide receiver, Wully was first-team all-state in both
Nebraska major newspapers. In basketball, he averaged 14-plus points a game in
what he calls his “stress-free” sport. In track and field, he was state long
jump champion three times, high jump champion once and 200-meter champion once.
time the locals looked up, Wully was trying to hit another milestone. “My only
regret is, I wish I had lifted weights more than I did in high school,” he
said. “I think that might have helped me with my shoulder issues.”
Wully found a confidante in assistant Husker strength and conditioning coach Brandon
Rigoni, a one-time Nebraska football captain and a “gunner” who was
fast and fearless sprinting downfield and breaking up the opponent’s kick return
Rig’ is Another Role Model
about one young man’s work ethic finding and being inspired by another’s. “I’m
pretty tight with Coach Rig,” Wully said. “I’ve heard about the kind of effort
he gave out when he was a walk-on here. Guys who played with him said he’d be
going 100 miles an hour. Even on a slow-tempo day, he was always flying
has shown similar energy and was awarded back-to-back Scout Team honors during
non-conference games last fall. He was the Offensive Player of the Week for the
Washington game and the Special Teams Player of the Week for the Wyoming Game.
athletes who come to Nebraska on blind faith, awards like that are meaningful.
They keep players going on all cylinders even when they’re playing with shoulders
that need to be fixed. “We made the decision to have surgery before the Ohio
State game,” Wully said. “It was hard for me to take myself off the field, but
it was definitely the right decision. I’ve been cleared to run, then cleared to
lift some and now I have full clearance. In the days leading up to spring practice, I've been able to do everything I need to do.”
up on the priority chart – after former Husker walk-on All-American Scott
Strasburger performed surgery on his dislocated shoulder – is to gain
back the 10 pounds Wully lost, so he can compete with more physicality and
speed is my best asset because it allows me to get by people, but I’ve also
been working on everything else I need to become successful,” Wully said. “I’ve
been consistent catching the ball and have worked hard to pick up the other
things that can put me on the field.”
Call Marlowe ‘The Professor’
Marlowebecame Wully’s role model when surgery took him off the field and
forced a deeper dive into the playbook. He became a sponge at team meetings,
studying the playbook binder and learning the nuances of route-running.
call Marlowe ‘The Professor’ because he knows every inch of our playbook,” Wully
said. “He knows every post pattern and what routes to run depending on
coverage. He can explain the right reads and tell you the right depth.”
wonder Wully made up his mind to sharpen his mind. “I want to be ready when my
opportunity comes,” he said. “I have great respect for Coach Fish. I’m glad
he’s here. I’ve learned a lot and have a lot more to learn.”
more days like high school when someone would throw the ball up and Wullenwaber
would turn on the jets and then haul it in. “It’s all starting to click for me
now,” he said. “I’ve gotten over a big hump and know there are more ahead of
Nebraska’s head strength and conditioning coach, is another major catalyst in
Wully’s rapid development. “His circuit workouts are tough,” Wully said. “It’s
like a gauntlet … very intense and you realize how much of it is in your mind.
You have to go into every workout with a kick-in-the-rear attitude. It’s like
Coach Dobson says: ‘Boys do what they want to do, and men do what they have to
Trying to Exceed Expectations
never truly envisioned himself as an intense watcher of film until he had no
choice in the matter. “I have to watch everything I can, so I can stay on top
of the game,” he said. “I have to keep my strength up, get my rest and always
make sure I do more than what I’m required to do.”
part of the mantra of being a walk-on. “It’s hard to earn the respect you have
to have to compete at this level,” he said. “Walk-ons always believe we have to
play harder, give more and set the tone for the scholarship players, even
though we’re treated the same as they are. We have to get noticed to get on the
field and then once we get that chance, we have to expand on it.”
that he made the right decision to chase his biggest dream, Wullenwaber still
has great respect for Pepin, who tried to recruit him to compete in track.
Pepin told me when he was recruiting me that he wouldn’t want me looking over
my shoulder wondering if I should have given football a try,” he said. “He’s an
awesome guy, and I think I know why his athletes love competing for him.
glad I did what I did,” Wully said, admitting that, like so many others before
him, he accepted the opportunity to walk on, based on blind faith, not to
mention a fervent desire to do whatever it takes to pursue his own field of
dreams, otherwise known as Memorial Stadium … the pipedream that just may be
about to become a reality.