Walk-ons reward Pelini's commitment

Walk-on Spencer Long, left, and former walk-on Mike Caputo have helped to solidify one of the Big Ten’s strongest offensive lines.

Story by Dan Hoppen, News Net Nebraska
Photo by Patrick Breen, Daily Nebraskan

Mike Caputo is a big guy. At 6-foot-1 and 275 pounds, Caputo dwarfs most of his classmates. If you put an average-sized male behind the senior, he’d disappear.

But once Caputo pulls on his pads and steps onto the football field, he’s one of the small guys. Offensive lineman typically weigh north of 300 pounds, as do the defensive tackles Caputo is assigned with blocking each play.

That’s why he was lightly recruited out of Millard North High School, where he was named to the all-state first team. Colleges didn’t believe he possessed the size to effectively hold off the behemoths that line up opposite of the center each Saturday.

He had several Division II scholarship offers, but Caputo balked, deciding instead to walk on at Nebraska.
“It would bother me to know that there was another level above me,” he said. “I had to know I could play with the best. Also, just growing up in Nebraska, I just idolized Nebraska football.”

Four years later Caputo is a two-time watch list member for the Rimington Award, given annually to college football’s best center. More importantly, he’s joined the ever-expanding list of walk-ons who have provided key contributions during their NU careers.

When Caputo arrived at Nebraska, walk-ons received about as much playing time as the cheerleaders. He began his career in 2007, former coach Bill Callahan’s final season. Callahan mostly ignored the walk-on program, choosing instead to rely almost solely on scholarship players. He was fired after NU went 5-7 in 2007.

In stepped Bo Pelini, who chose to bring back many traditions Callahan had laid aside, including the walk-on program. He believes walk-ons can make a difference and gives them the same shot as the players under scholarship.

Nebraska had always been known for its strong walk-on program, a fraternity that produced players pivotal to all of the Huskers’ five national titles. NU has seen six of its walk-ons earn All-American honors and has sent 28 walk-ons to the NFL.

Nebraska’s roster currently has 56 walk-ons. Nine have started at least one game and several others have made key contributions off the bench.

Some players, like Caputo, have earned scholarships after a few seasons in scarlet and cream. Caputo was placed on scholarship before the 2009 season.

“It shows that hard work can pay off,” Caputo said. ““Earning it makes you appreciate it more. Coming in as a walk-on and finishing out with a scholarship … I’m very thankful for that. You really remember that.”

Caputo isn’t the only walk-on making a contribution – in fact, he’s not even the only one on the offensive line. On his right is Spencer Long, a redshirt sophomore who has played nearly every snap this season. And when left guard Andrew Rodriguez was injured and missed the Washington game, walk-on Seung Hoon Choi stepped in.

“They’re a great example of the ‘earn it’ mentality,” offensive line coach Barney Cotton said. “That’s what we talked about in our huddle before the game: ‘No more talking. It’s time to go earn it.’ Spencer’s done a good job. He’s not done earning it. Caputo was a walk-on and he’s still earning it. Choi’s a walk-on and he’s still earning it.”

Another former walk-on who had to wait his turn was safety Austin Cassidy, who spent the first three and a half years of his career buried behind more experienced, scholarship players at safety. But Pelini, disappointed in his safeties’ play last season, gave Cassidy the starting free safety job before the Missouri game last year. Cassidy hasn’t given it back.

“If you can play, you’re going to be on the field,” he said. “There’s no difference to the coaches as far as scholarship or walk-on, freshman or senior. If you can play and you’re the best guy for that position, you’re going to be out there.”

Cassidy, like Caputo, grew up idolizing the Huskers. He was a star quarterback at Lincoln Southwest High School, but didn’t receive a scholarship offer from NU.

But as it is with so many Nebraska kids, the dream of pulling on a Husker jersey never died. Cassidy was finally given the scholarship he desired before last season. He said he believes the in-state walk-ons are so enamored with the school’s tradition that they’re willing to push a little harder. Of the 56 walk-ons, 46 came from Nebraska high schools.

“It just means that a lot of the in-state walk-on kids are hard-working,” he said. “They’re willing to come and do whatever it takes every single day, whatever the coaches ask of them. A lot of them got their first shot on special teams, which isn’t always glamorous. But whenever they get on the field, everyone’s happy to be out there.

“We get a lot of kids from California or Texas and they love being Huskers, but they don’t know what it is to grow up in the state and idolize some other Huskers. I’m always cheering for those guys and I want to see them out on the field.”

Trevor Roach’s story is similar. He grew up a Husker fan in Elkhorn and the redshirt freshman is paying for tuition right now.

But most walk-ons have to wait years to get any serious playing time. After redshirting his freshman year in 2010, Roach found himself thrown into the Huskers’ first game this season against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga after starter Will Compton went down with an injury.

He finished second on the team with seven tackles, including two for loss.

“Everyone gets a fair shot at everything,” Roach said. “It’s awesome. It’s something you want to do your whole life. Now being a part of it, it’s just a great feeling.”

None of these stories would be possible if not for the willingness of Pelini to give the unheralded guys a chance to prove themselves.

And the stories will keep coming. The Huskers added 14 walk-ons this season. All are redshirting, but hope to someday get the shot that Caputo, Cassidy and Roach got.

“Our coaches give guys a fair shake,” Caputo said. “I think there’s a certain amount of pride that comes from coming from Nebraska and being a walk-on.”