Fireworks and Screen at Nebraska Football's Memorial Stadium
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Nebraska Natives and the NFL Draft

April 26, 2019

On Thursday night, 32 players heard their names called in the first round of the NFL Draft. One of them was Noah Fant, a tight end from Iowa who graduated from South High School in Omaha.

The Denver Broncos selected Fant with the 20th pick, making him the first native Nebraskan drafted in the first round since 1987.

The first time I saw Fant was when he was a sophomore, playing basketball for Omaha Burke. His athleticism and physicality jumped off the floor. He ended up transferring to Omaha South to play football for his brother, Chris, then the head coach of the Packers. I covered several of his basketball games for both South and Omaha Sports Academy where he played AAU ball.

It was a pretty cool feeling watching someone I’d known for a few years have his dreams come true on national television. It’s the same feeling I got while watching Creighton’s and Omaha North’s Justin Patton go in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, or when I saw Creighton’s and Omaha Benson’s Khyri Thomas.

Don’t let Fant’s three years in Iowa City get in the way: he’s Omaha’s — and Nebraska’s — own. 

The Huskers have only themselves to blame that he ended up at Iowa. That coaching staff completely botched his recruitment, and Fant made a business decision. He wanted to develop into a next-level tight end and Iowa had a strong track record of doing just that.

A Nebraska native was selected in the 2018 NFL Draft as well as defensive lineman Harrison Phillips, a Millard West product, was selected by the Buffalo Bills in the third round. He played his college ball at Stanford, not Nebraska.

Nebraska hasn’t had a scholarship recruit from the state of Nebraska drafted since 2011 when Niles Paul (Omaha North) was selected. Three Nebraskans have been drafted out of Nebraska since then, but they all began as walk-ons — Alex Henery (Omaha Burke), Spencer Long (Elkhorn) and Andy Janovich (Gretna).

Perhaps the streak will end on Saturday. Luke Gifford’s name hasn’t really popped up on any mock drafts that I’ve seen, but he’s seemingly done well in his interviews with teams and certainly has some ability if he can stay healthy. But even if it doesn’t end this year, I expect it will soon.

Fant feels the same way.

“With Coach Frost there and the things they are doing now, it would have been a harder decision,” Fant told the Omaha World-Herald’s Mike Sautter. “Nebraska is definitely going to be on the rise next year. At my time, the best decision was to go to Iowa for my future.”

Frost has made local recruiting a priority, and not just for walk-ons. Nebraska signed the top five players in the state in the 2019 class to scholarships, three of which are already on campus. The Huskers have also secured a verbal commitment form one of the top two in-state players in the 2020 class and are recruiting the other very hard. Perhaps at some point down the road one or more of them will find themselves on the same stage Fant walked across on Thursday night.

But for the time being, Fant is worth celebrating and rooting for at the next level. I’ve never really had strong feelings about the Broncos one way or the other, but I’ll be rooting for them now. I’m a Packers fan and I’m just glad Fant didn’t go to one of Green Bay’s rivals. 

Anyway, Fant is a terrific talent, a smart kid and, most importantly, Nebraska’s own. We just let Iowa borrow him for a few years.

Changing gears, another decades-long drought ended on Thursday night as well when Washington drafted Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins with the 15th overall pick. Haskins was the first Big Ten quarterback taken in the first round since Penn State’s Kerry Collins was taken with the fifth pick in 1995.

The Big Ten went 14 years between first-rout quarterbacks. How long until the next one?

Michigan’s Shea Patterson is probably the best returning signal-caller in the conference. Iowa’s Nathan Stanley possessions some of those traits that scouts love when evaluating quarterbacks for the next level. Both of them are likely mid-round picks barring a massive leap during their senior seasons, however.

The Big Ten is also home to a pair of former 5-star recruits who are now at their second schools in Ohio State’s Justin Fields and Northwestern’s Hunter Johnson. Neither one has taken meaningful snaps at the college level yet, however, so it’s tough to project them at this point.

However, Adrian Martinez has plenty of snaps under his belt already and is obviously Nebraska’s unquestioned starter heading into his sophomore season. He was a freshman All-American as a dynamic dual-threat quarterback. He’s got a good enough arm to make most of the throws and the legs to get himself out of trouble or make a big play on his own. 

Martinez is a special talent, and if he can make strides with his ability to anticipate throws and read the field, why can’t he be the Big Ten’s next first-round quarterback, whether that’s in 2021 or 2022?

There are still two more days of the 2019 NFL Draft left. Hopefully we’ll have another reason to celebrate by the end of Day 3.

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