LINCOLN — On Monday morning, Nebraska seniors Dylan Utter and Brad Simpson drove back to Lincoln from Omaha. A Papillion-La Vista grad and a Ralston grad, longtime friends, making the drive they had made so many times — only this one occurred at the beginning of senior week, which culminates Saturday in the final NU home game for Utter, Simpson and 28 others.
Utter and Simpson are on scholarship now, but they arrived in 2012 as walk-ons. They spent that morning drive reflecting on their five-year journey and, because men sometimes consider their good fortune by pondering the other side of it, they talked about something else.
“The times we wanted to throw in the towel,” Utter said. “But you never wanted to let your boys down.”
They didn’t. Neither did the rest of the senior walk-ons who made it to this point. Utter, Simpson, Sam Foltz, Trey Foster, Ross Dzuris, Ryker Fyfe, Graham Nabity, Brandon Reilly and Logan Rath were eventually put on scholarship. Others — such as Spencer Lindsay, Sam Hahn and Jordan Nelson — are key contributors for the Huskers in various ways.
The best of that 2012 class, Andy Janovich, has already graduated and plays in the NFL. Foltz, who died this summer in a car accident, will be on the hearts and minds of every Husker, but especially those walk-ons, as senior day festivities commence Saturday morning.
It is, arguably, the best single group of walk-ons in Nebraska history.
“I think it’s made this team a little more resilient,” said Dzuris, now a captain. “We have a lot of leaders on this team; I don’t think it’s a few guys.”
“More than anything, you’re mentally tough,” said Fyfe, who may get a rare start Saturday if fellow senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong’s hamstring isn’t healed. “Even if you don’t play, just making it five years at Nebraska and sticking with it.”
“It’s amazing,” Simpson said. “When I first came here, I never knew what was in store for me. I didn’t know how things were going to pan out. I didn’t know — school-wise, anything. I came in blind.”
Now, as his career winds down, Simpson is committed to seeing everything.
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Back in 2012, the Husker walk-on class was put together by former director of football operations Jeff Jamrog. It was a large class — 19 players overall — and didn’t include Rath or Hahn, who started their careers at South Dakota State and North Dakota State, respectively.
“In terms of high school accomplishments, talent, potential, intangibles and character, this group of 19 student-athletes will have a great opportunity to make their mark in our football program,” Jamrog said on signing day in 2012.
Most of the walk-ons from that class played in the Shrine Bowl, a high school all-star game. Reilly was the offensive MVP. Simpson, who intercepted a pass thrown by Fyfe and returned it for a touchdown, was the defensive MVP.
“There was a lot of talent in that game, and we were excited to get things started,” Simpson said.
Reality hit for most of the walk-ons once training camp started. In his first practice, Simpson surveyed all the guys on the Husker team. He asked for bigger shoulder pads.
“I see all these guys walking around who were way bigger than me,” Simpson said. “So they gave me some larger pads. I still have the same ones. I grew into them.”
Said Dzuris: “I remember being on the ground a lot. And getting used to wearing knee braces. The speed, the physicality.”
Practice knee braces were mandatory, Dzuris said, for defensive linemen at the time. He’d never worn them in practice, so just getting used to that was a struggle.
One walk-on immediately stood out — and not because of anything he said.
Janovich, who turned down a UNK scholarship, was quiet. He didn’t even participate in the summer conditioning program before training camp. But he made the 105-man roster and quickly became the team’s starting fullback.
“He was kind of the motivator for everybody,” Simpson said. “He kind of kicked things off.”
“Just a specimen,” Utter said. “He didn’t need to say anything. You knew right away he was going to be a stud.”
Others found playing time at their own pace. Simpson was a starter on special teams by the 2013 season — that’s when he thought he could make a career at Nebraska, he said. Dzuris didn’t play a single snap until injuries and widespread attrition gave him an open path to playing time in 2015. Dzuris followed the lead of Jack Gangwish, a close friend who was one year older and walked much the same path Dzuris did.
Reilly was boosted by the encouragement of former NU wideout Kenny Bell, who told Reilly he belonged. Reilly believed Bell and used those words as motivation. Fyfe repeatedly beat out scholarship quarterbacks recruited to play ahead of him — AJ Bush and Johnny Stanton among them. Utter’s day-in, day-out toughness catapulted him into the offensive line’s starting lineup last season. Foster became a strong in-line blocker and found a role.
Janovich was Janovich — the quiet specimen. Walk-ons try to find time to watch Broncos games to watch Janovich.
And Foltz was Foltz — the gifted athlete. Gifted at punting. Gifted at friendship. Gifted at being able to epitomize Nebraska.
He was Fyfe’s close friend and top wideout during their Grand Island days, and he quickly became a central figure of the entire 2012 recruiting class, much less the walk-ons. He became Nebraska’s starting punter in 2013. By then, he was already becoming a team favorite.
“He always had everybody in our class — all the walk-ons — he always had our backs,” Dzuris said. “He was so encouraging. And that was what we all wanted to be, too.”
Foltz’s impact stretched well beyond the walk-ons and deep into the entire roster. When coach Mike Riley conducted a survey this summer to determine which players in the program were among the most trusted, Riley said Foltz’s name came up a lot. At Foltz’s wake and funeral reception — a week after the car crash in Wisconsin that took his life — players spoke at length about Foltz’s ability to build relationships.
“He’s been with us all season,” Dzuris said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt.”
Said senior linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey on Tuesday: “I miss the hell out of Sam. He’s one of those guys. … Spirit. Energy. The love for this place. The love for his family. The stories of him going home for a day-and-a-half to help his dad.”
Simpson, like the others, has fond memories of Foltz. He remembers, too, each time one of the walk-ons from that class got a scholarship.
“Just seeing the look on their face when they told the news to me and when I told them congratulations; that’s the best,” he said.
Simpson got his scholarship this summer. Four years of work, with a big reward at the end.
Like most of Nebraska’s seniors, he’ll participate in Nebraska’s Pro Day next spring. He’s been working on long snapping to improve his profile for NFL teams.
But Simpson is focusing on these final moments as a Husker. When he’s not on the field, he may steal a second or two and just reflect, inside Memorial Stadium, on his life, right here in the present, as a Nebraska football player.
He didn’t throw in the towel — neither did so many other walk-ons. Senior day, tinged with sadness as it may be for Foltz’s passing, is part of their reward.
“I’ve been soaking it in,” Simpson said. “Sometimes, I’ll be looking around at the environment. I’ll look down, and I’m wearing the uniform. I know this isn’t going to last forever. I thought that last game. In the fourth quarter — it was getting real loud, it was tied.”
“I’m going to miss having this feeling — putting on this uniform. Being around these guys, especially.”
Maryland at Nebraska
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
Radio: 103.1 FM