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November 20, 2012

Walk-on program has flourished under Pelini

As head coach Bo Pelini sat in his office Monday and Tuesday, several games involving players that could be potential Huskers took place just a few stories below. But he wasn't allowed to watch.

Due to NCAA rules, the NU coaching staff wasn't allowed to watch and evaluate players as the state championship games went on in Memorial Stadium over the past couple of days. But Pelini said the coaches can get the film of the games and plan on grading players that way.

"I think we do a pretty good job evaluating the talent in the state," Pelini said during his monthly appearance on the Sports Nightly Coaches Radio Show. "I think we have a really good relationship with the high school coaches in the state and we try to make sure we turn over every stone and look at everybody."

There will be some in-state players each year that receive scholarship offers, but the majority will be presented with the chance to walk on at Nebraska. Pelini said he didn't fully understand the importance of the walk-on program when he first took the job in 2008, but after spending time with athletic director Tom Osborne he came to realize how valuable of a tool it could be.

"I've learned a lot as far as that's concerned and how important the walk-on program is here from Coach Osborne and how it works," Pelini said. "Fortunately, we've had a lot of success. You only have so many scholarships. Guys that come in and bust their bust and work for it, there's a light at the end of the tunnel. You're going to get what you earn."

There are several players that can attest to Pelini's words. Both Justin Jackson and Seung Hoon Choi began their careers as walk-ons before earning starting spots on the offensive line. Brett Maher locked down the role of both kicker and punter after fellow walk-on Alex Henery held the spot for four years.

Justin Blatchford has earned increased time in the secondary over the past month, Ron Kellogg is the backup quarterback and freshman Andy Janovich has earned starts at fullback. Several other walk-ons, such as Trevor Roach and P.J. Mangieri have earned spot duty.

Pelini said it's not always easy to find good walk-on candidates. The process usually begins with a coach or other figure of influence recommending a player, followed up by Nebraska investigating.

"We're out there and we have staff watching potential walk-ons the same way we're watching any potential recruit," Pelini said. "If there's somebody that we're not on, we look forward to hearing the name and we'll do our due diligence to look at him and see if it's somebody that fits us. First and foremost, it's got to come from the kid and the coach and make sure that they let us know that he should be on our radar."

As he does with any player, Pelini chooses not to paint a false picture for a potential walk-on. He doesn't promise things to players, instead letting their play on the field determine what they earn.

"It's pretty black and white," Pelini said. "This is going to be your opportunity and what you do with that opportunity is up to you. We've been talking about the walk-on program - a walk-on is going to have the same opportunity as a scholarship guy. They're going to walk on the field and they're going to get reps and it's what you do with them. We're not playing favorites here. We're going to play the guys that earn it, put it on the film and do things right on and off the field. That's the way it is around our program.

"I always say this - a big part of recruiting is developing trust and having trust between players and coaches. We have respect for the players and it's a two-way street. If you paint a false picture for them in recruiting and they walk in and it's not that way, you might as well part ways right at that point. I know that goes on some places and I know that's some people's styles in recruiting, but we don't go down that road."

Big Ten expansion only gives NU more exposure

While the Huskers were busy taking care of Minnesota last Saturday, rumors began to spill out that the Big Ten was looking at adding Maryland and Rutgers. The gossip turned out to be true and the conference moved quickly, bringing in the Terrapins on Monday and the Scarlet Knights Tuesday.

Pelini said it was news to him when he heard of what happened, but he is pleased with the moves and believes they strengthen the conference. He also understands that this movement will likely kick off another round of conference realignment.

"I was surprised to say the least, but it makes sense," Pelini said. "I'd always heard that if the league were to expand, it was going to go East, that the New York market was something that they had on their radar. It looks like financially it makes a lot of sense. Those are two good programs. Now the whole thing will start all over again. Obviously that affects the ACC and the Big East. The musical chairs won't probably stop there so it will be interesting to see what happens."

The Huskers are a team that recruits nationally and getting the extra publicity from the Big Ten Network on the East Coast will only help NU in recruiting. Pelini said that he believed the Huskers were already the national game in the DC area in four of the past five weeks, so a Nebraska may have a chance for a foothold in new territory.

"I'm sure the Big Ten Network will be in there and be a big part of it, but we're already getting exposure in the DC area and in Virginia and Maryland," Pelini said. "Obviously you combine that with the New York market and some other things that will go on and it will be interesting. It only helps us because we're so national in our recruiting. The more exposure we get, the better."

Pelini calls Evans Big Ten's best CB

The rise of cornerback Ciante Evans has been one of the most interesting storylines to follow during this season. After an up-and-down sophomore campaign, the coaching staff raved about Evans' work during spring and fall camp and the junior hasn't disappointed this year. Pelini said he absolutely believes Evans should be one of the first-team all-conference selections.

"I'll say this - if there's a better corner in the conference than Ciante, someone's got to show me," Pelini said. "Somebody better show me and try to convince me. I don't know if it will help him or hurt him that he plays a lot of nickel. He plays corner. He has had an outstanding year and like I said, I think you'd be hard-pressed to tell me there's been a better cornerback in our conference."

Evan's work has stuck out in particular games such as the Northwestern and Wisconsin contests in which he put the clamps on Kain Colter and Jared Abbrederis, respectively.

But Pelini didn't want to single those games out. He said that Evans' consistency is what has made him such a special player this season.

"He does it week after week," Pelini said. "Knock on wood, but I haven't seen him get beaten very much. We ask a lot of a guy at that position and he's playing at an extremely high level. There's a guy that put the work in. He is so much better. Toward the end of last year, he started to play well and the light has really come on. He is as good a football player as there is on our team."

Evans is just one of the pieces new secondary coach Terry Joseph has had to juggle at cornerback this season. He has had to decide whether to start Evans at the nickel or on the outside while also figuring out who out of the quartet of Josh Mitchell, Andrew Green, Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Mohammed Seisay deserves playing time on the outside.

"We look at matchups," Pelini said. "We look at how guys practiced during the week. A lot of things go into it. Coach Terry Joseph has done a great job with that group. They're all playing at a high level and they've all gotten better. That's all you can ask."

Pelini updates Burkhead's status

After saying running back Rex Burkhead had a 50-50 shot to play this weekend at Iowa, Pelini upgraded the senior's chances slightly Tuesday night.

"He's had a good week and he's feeling better every day," Pelini said. "He hasn't had those setbacks. I would say it's better than 50-50 that he's going to play. We'll have practice tomorrow and see how he is going into Friday. We'll sit down with Rex and figure out what the best thing to do is."


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