A program’s scholarship recruiting class always gets plenty of attention, and rightly so. Including Denim Dawson (a 2022 commit who enrolled midseason last year), Fred Hoiberg signed three high school recruits, three transfers and one JUCO transfer.
But those weren’t the only roster additions heading into the 2022-23 season. Three walk-ons — Chris McGraw, Jace Piatkowski and Jackson Cronin — moved on from the program (McGraw graduated, the latter two entered the portal) and Hoiberg and his staff brought in three new ones to replace them. In-state high school products Cale Jacobsen (Ashland-Greenwood) and Henry Burt (Elkhorn South) chose the Huskers, as did Arizona State transfer Jeffrey Grace III.
Burt was the first to pull the trigger, though according to former Elkhorn South head coach Nolan Reilly, the 6-foot-6 forward didn’t decide until late in the process the he even wanted to play basketball in college.
“If he was going to play it was going to be a bigger school, a bigger D-II or a D-I because he felt like that would benefit him further down the road, being at a bigger school … He understands it’s going to be an uphill battle for him to get playing time and those things, but knows he can contribute with scout team stuff and then maybe later in his career get some playing time,” Reilly said.
Burt was a late-bloomer in high school. He played in just nine varsity games and scored 15 total points as a junior, but he broke out as a senior, leading the Storm with 12.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game while shooting 62% from the field. Reilly said his late improvement was a result of Burt’s persistence and work ethic.
“He got a little stronger and he was more consistent with his work ethic and proved that he could get things done on his effort,” Reilly said. “Especially during big games he was pretty darn good on both sides of the ball, but mainly just finishing around the rim and working really hard on the glass on both ends. I’d just say his persistence and focus on being more consistent with his efforts was the biggest growth that he had from junior to senior year.”
Soon after Burt’s commitment, Jacobsen announced his decision. The 6-foot-4 guard was one of the best players in his class since he set foot on a varsity floor as a freshman, but a torn ACL that cost him most of his junior year and his 17U summer set back his recruitment. He played with Nebraska Supreme UAA in the spring and picked up a couple of Division I offers, but he still chose to walk on at Nebraska.
“I was just excited for him, excited for the opportunity that he has,” Ashland-Greenwood coach Jacob Mohs said. “He’s certainly earned it with his play and his work and I think he’s going to do good things there. I’m excited that he gets to play against that caliber of athlete every single day; that’s only going to benefit him and make him better.”
As a senior, he averaged 17.3 points, 6.0 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 3.6 steals this season while guiding the Class C1 Bluejays to a 27-1 record and a Class C-1 state championship. He shot 67% from the field (30% from 3) and 79% from the foul line while sporting a 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio. Mohs raved about what Jacobsen brings off the court as well.
“Just an excellent kid,” Mohs said. “Good in the classroom, good behavior, good decisions, good choices on the weekend. He is there to get an education and do what he can on the basketball court. So he’s going to bring a lot of hard work. I can’t say enough positive things on the court as well as off the court.”
Grace took a different route. The Elmhurst, Illinois, native committed to walk on at Arizona State and redshirted last year, but after the season he entered the transfer portal looking for a different situation. He landed at Nebraska, where he found some familiar faces. Grace played summer basketball with Sam Hoiberg for Breakaway Basketball in Illinois.
“I was happy for him choosing a place that he loved and being back with people he knew, the Hoibergs,” Breakaway Basketball coach Pete Thaus said.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound guard helped lead York Community (Ill.) High School to 57 wins as a junior and senior including a school record 29 in 2018-19. He averaged 11 points, five rebounds and three assists as a senior.
“Jeff is a fierce competitor, and he’s a guy that is willing to do anything for the team to make them win,” Thaus said. “Jeff was our guy, if we needed a go-to bucket, it was either him or Sam. But Jeff was a luxury to have for our team. He can handle the ball very well. We put him on the best offensive player; he’s great on defense. He’s willing to do just the small things to help everyone else and just help the team wins. So I really love that guy; he’s awesome.”
Thaus also spoke highly of Sam Hoiberg, who redshirted last year and is the sole returning walk-on for the program.
“I’m excited about our walk-on situation this year with with Cale; he’s been phenomenal,” Fred Hoiberg said. “Sam being in the program for a year as a redshirt, he knows what to do and he’s talking to the other guys, pulling guys back into the gym to get extra work. I’m excited about our other two, Henry Burt and Jeff Grace, who will be very good walk-ons for us as well.”
Jacobsen is already on campus and participating in summer workouts while Burt and Grace are still on their way. Walk-ons typically face a steep uphill battle towards playing time, but Hoiberg said the quartet of underclassmen will get a look just like everybody else.
“They’re going to have a chance,” Fred Hoiberg said. “If they show that they belong on the floor, they’re going to play and I think we’ve kind of got a history of doing that, even my days at Iowa State we had a walk-on that I ended up giving a scholarship to and was a staple in our rotation, and what Charlie Easley did to work himself into our rotation that first year. If those walk-ons show that they’re deserving of minutes, they’re going to be on the floor.
“And I think those guys are going to have an opportunity this season, especially at backup point guard are very important minutes. We’re looking for somebody to come in and run the show and guard. Sam [Griesel] is obviously the guy we brought in to help us in that area, but you’ve got Quaran [McPherson] who’s still a freshman, but then those walk-ons, three of them have played point guard in high school with Cale, with Sam and with Jeff Grace. So those guys are going to have an opportunity, just like everybody on our roster will, and somebody will emerge over the next couple of months and show that they deserve those backup minutes.”
However, the walk-ons can contribute to the program whether they see the floor or not. Alongside redshirts and other young players, walk-ons often from the scout team that studies upcoming opponents and prepares the rotation players for what they’re going to see. Mohs thinks Jacobsen will be really good in that role.
“I think he’ll challenge you,” Mohs said. “We’ve seen him for four years challenge the best in our state as far as offensively and defensively, so he’s skilled enough offensively to make those guys work on defense and then defensively he’s good enough and smart enough and knows what’s going on where if those guys want to take a practice, a drill or whatever rep off, he’s going to take advantage of it.”
Thaus had similar praise for Grace.
“He’s just going to push guys and make them the best that they can be,” Thus said. “Kind of something I pointed to before, is just the defensive portion. When we faced Phenom U with Patrick Baldwin, who’s now with the Warriors, we put him on Baldwin because he was the guy who gets the job done. That’s how much we trusted him on the team and on the defensive side of the floor. That translating over to Coach Hoiberg and that Nebraska team, he’s just going to push guys on the scout team to be the best versions of themselves.”
Nebraska is set to have 17 players on its roster for the 2022-23 season, and each of them will have a chance to contribute as Hoiberg looks to get Nebraska back on track in his fourth season in Lincoln. That includes the three new walk-ons who will look to carve out roles for themselves, whether it be in the games or on the practice court.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.