Four years ago, Matt Masker was the senior starting quarterback for the Kearney Catholic Stars. He capped off a prolific prep career with 2,506 yards and 25 touchdowns, leading the Stars to a 7-3 record and a playoff appearance.
Heinrich Haarberg was a freshman on that team. He attempted one pass that year as he sat behind the veteran in Masker and learned what it took to play quarterback at the varsity level.
With Masker off to Lincoln as a walk-on the following year, Haarberg took over as the starter for the Stars, splitting time with an upperclassman, and during his junior year he started to attract major attention from college coaches. He received offers from Boston College, Vanderbilt, North Carolina State and several others but ultimately chose to stay home and commit to Nebraska.
Today, the two Kearney Catholic alumni find themselves in a very familiar situation in Lincoln.
“I mentored Heinrich when he was a freshman in high school and I was a senior in high school,” Masker said. “He was just this young kid that was 14 years old. I knew that he had a ton of potential, and so it didn’t really surprise me at all when Heinrich started blowing up and and getting these offers from places. It didn’t surprise me because I’ve seen him from when he was 14 on and I’ve had the honor of helping him mature and understand the offense and grow more. I was really excited for him when he started getting these offers because I knew the kind of talent he had.”
Haarberg graduated early from Kearney Catholic and enrolled at Nebraska in January. He went through spring ball and is continuing to battle with second-year freshman Logan Smothers for the back-up quarterback job.
“He’s been doing great,” Masker said. “It’s kind of funny; it’s like déjà vu for me. I helped him understand high school offense, I’m helping him understand college offense. Crazy unique situation for us; I don’t think that’s probably ever happened anywhere else in the country at a Division I school, You’ve got back-to-back high school quarterbacks coming to the same school in the same room. It’s pretty unique but it’s been a lot of fun. We’ve grown even closer though this process.”
Their shared history is a common discussion topic between the two former Stars.
“Half the room is Kearney Catholic quarterbacks,” Masker said. “I had 46 kids in my high school class, I think he had probably 50 or so. I think it says a lot about Kearney Catholic and the program and Coach [Rashawn] Harvey.”
Quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco said Martinez and Masker have made the freshman feel welcome, and Haarberg said the veterans in the room have played a big part in the progress he’s made since he arrived in Lincoln.
“It’s awesome,” Masker said. “Matt and Adrian, Logan, we’re all like brothers. We’re all helping each other out; they’re mostly helping me more. They’re helping me every step of the way. If I have a question, I know I can ask them.”
While they came form the same place, Masker’s path to Lincoln was very different from Haarberg’s. He had to pay his own way as a walk-on.
“I knew walking on wasn’t going to be an easy task, but what in life that’s worth it is easy?” Masker said. “Growing up I absolutely loved Nebraska football. I came to games growing up, I idolized the players and wanted to be just like them. So when I got that opportunity, I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy and it’s a big task to walk on at a big program like this, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. I’ve learned so much about myself as a person through this process. It’s been tough every single day but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Though he’s a sophomore by eligibility, Masker is heading into his fourth season of college football. He’s been in Lincoln as long as Adrian Martinez has, and although he’s traveled to nine games as Nebraska’s No. 3 quarterback over the past three seasons, he has yet to take a snap. Even so, he’s found a way to make an impact.
“Every year I’m always going to push guys,” Masker said. “I’m going to do whatever I can to push guys on and off the field. Whatever role I’m given, I want to be the best I possibly can be at that role. If it’s a signaler on the sidelines, helping Coach Frost out with whatever he needs to do, that’s a pretty big role. If it’s coaching guys on the sideline during the games, if it’s coaching guys at practice, if it’s running with the whatever, I want to fill that role the best I possibly can and I take that very personally.
“I love this place. I’ve spent a lot of time here and I’ve given everything I can to Coach Frost and to my brothers and to this program. I love it here and that’s what I take pride in is pushing others and making others better.”
Masker said he and the others quarterbacks are best friends off the field. On the field they’re competitors, but also brothers. No one in that room is afraid of speaking up and holding others accountable.
“If somebody sees me slacking, I guarantee I’ll get corrected,” Masker said. “As the leaders of the offense, that’s been the biggest difference in the offseason and this fall camp is we’re being more vocal when we see a guy slacking. We’re going to call them out on it. That’s the way every football team should be, especially as quarterbacks. As leaders, sometimes it’s uncomfortable to call people out, but it’s out of love and you have to do it. If you see your brother walking off a cliff, you better tell him before he walks off that dang cliff, because its going to affect the whole dang team.”
Though he still hasn’t taken a snap, Masker is on of the more experienced players on the offense. Preparing to perform his role as a mentor and source of knowledge for the younger quarterbacks has in turn made Masker himself a better, more prepared player.
“If you don’t know something well enough that you can’t teach it, you probably don’t know it well enough,” Masker said. “I asked myself ‘OK, how well do I know the offense if I’m going to be working with the young guys and teaching them every day?’ It only made me better as a quarterback and helped my understanding as well. Teaching those young guys was definitely beneficial for me too because it helped me see a different side of the game, something that I had never really done or taken upon myself.
“This offseason was really good for me mentally because I used to be the guy that was studying like crazy, asking a bunch of questions, but now I’m the guy that everyone is coming to me asking questions and I’m helping them out.
“What comes around, goes around, you know?”
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.