When Nebraska released it’s first depth chart prior to the season opener, Eli Sullivan, a junior walk-on safety, was listed with the third string.
In the third quarter against South Alabama, however, Sullivan had his number called on defense, and he was ready for it.
“We don’t really have a set rotation or anything, so it’s always just a mindset of next guy up,” Sullivan said. “We had a little rotation thing and I got thrown in there with the utmost confidence that they have in me, I just wanted to go out there, do my job and make a play.”
Deontai Williams went down in the second quarter and Eric Lee Jr. had to step in next to Marquel Dismuke. After that, Sullivan was the first safety off the bench.
Sullivan redshirted his first season on campus then played in five games on special teams as a freshman. Last season, he appeared in seven games, making his debut on defense against Bethune-Cookman.
“I feel like it’s been a slow process,” Sullivan said. “Not necessarily slow, but just a grind like everyone else, like every walk-on. Every walk-on takes a few years to grow into the program and find their role and find their niche, find what special team they can be a dog one. It might be all four of them, it might be one at a time. That’s how it kind of started for me.”
Sullivan recorded three tackles — two on special teams, one on defense — in his first two seasons. On Saturday, he made four tackles (two solo) including two stops at the line of scrimmage.
“It felt great,” Sullivan said. “It feels good to get up and throw the bones or something and see guys that you’ve been grinding with, all the walk-ons and guys that have been here for four years with me, it just feels good to see a smile on their face, that confidence in me.”
In Travis Fisher’s secondary, there’s no separation between starters and reserves, walk-ons and scholarship players. If he puts you in the game, he expects you to perform like a starter.
“Go in the game, you’re a starter,” Fisher said. “It’s the same approach, and that’s how I envisioned it to be from when I got here, from when I started, from camp and spring ball. Those guys are all treated the same. When they touch the field, they’re a starter.”
After the game, Lee said Sullivan playing is like having another coach on the field, and Sullivan said he takes a lot of pride in his knowledge of the game.
“It just starts with me priding myself on knowing what I’m doing on the field,” Sullivan said. “If I step on the field, I better know 100% what I’m going to do; if this guy motions I’ve got this and this guy motions I’ve got that, quarterback this, there are a million things. It goes all the way down to knowing which hand the lineman on the other side of the play has on the ground; if it was that specific, I’d want to know it. I’ve always just been detail-oriented and I’ve been taught that from a very young age from my high school coaches and it’s helped me down the road, it got me here.”
The coaches have raved about Sullivan this week. Fisher praised his intelligence and said he brings a lot of value to the field by getting the guys around him in the correct spots in addition to making plays himself.
“Eli’s doing a great job,” Scott Frost said on Thursday. “I think you’re starting to see the walk-on program that we have here starting to help us. Eli’s a great example. He's just battled and battled and improved and improved. When he got his chance, he came in and made plays. He was hungry and he came in and did a great job. He’s a guy we feel good about if he’s pressed into service.”
Sullivan is still a significant special teams contributor as well as he’s on most of the return and coverage units, something he takes great pride in.
“For me, it started one at a time with the old staff,” Sullivan said. “But one special team, it doesn’t matter what it is, it can change the game. They always say it’s a third of the game, but I feel like it’s so much more than that. You can change the entire momentum of a single game with one kick or one return, all that stuff. You can see that, when we have a big return, it changes the momentum of the game. When we don’t have a big return, it puts people in different situations. Every play matters and every detail matters.
“I pride myself in knowing every position on special teams. I’m probably not a guy that will be a kick returner any time soon, but I feel like if I know every position on special teams, then it gives the coaches the confidence that they can throw me in at any time and that I can help in any position, anyway needed. It’s a huge part of the game.”
The Huskers had one of those game-changing returns against South Alabama and Sullivan threw one of the key blocks to spring JD Spielman for a 76-yard punt return touchdown.
“It feels good,” Sullivan said. “We were put in a good position to make a play. We practice stuff like that constantly and it only takes one missed block or one penalty to bring it back. We were lucky enough to make some good blocks and seeing No. 10 running down the sideline is pretty special.”
Saturday will be a homecoming of sorts for Sullivans he is a native of Longmont, Colorado, and he grew up in a family of Buffalo fans.
“But that’s all in the past,” Sullivan said. “We wear the red N now.”
Colorado never showed interest in Sullivan coming as a high school, and once he visited Nebraska he was sold. Now he’ll get a chance to play against the Buffaloes, and if Williams is still out, he might play quite a bit.
“Unbelievable. For that guy, it’s got to be special for him,” defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said. “A guy from Colorado, walk-on guy, put his head down and grinder for three or four year, all he does is get better and better and better and better. Through camp, he’s out there making plays. He intercepts a pass with the ones and I’m like ‘Who’s that, Fish?’ He’s like, ‘That’s Eli.’ ‘Golly.’ He’s improved so much and I’m so happy for that guy. He made some big tackles out there.
“I saw some of the stuff on Twitter — he is a coach on the field. Shoot, he corrects me sometimes. ‘Nah, we did it because they had the formation to the boundary.’ ‘Great, good job.’ He studies the football game. There’s never going to be a point where he’s out of position. I’m proud of him as a kid.”