Volunteer Duty
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Volunteer Duty

December 31, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The three players Nebraska sent to the post-game press conference following Tennessee’s 38-24 win in the Music City Bowl were the three anyone probably would’ve picked – Ryker Fyfe, Brandon Reilly and Ross Dzuris. That’s a quarterback, receiver and defensive end.

Fyfe was there for standing in against a ferocious Volunteer pass rush and keeping Nebraska in the game. Mike Riley interrupted his post-game comments to comment on how well Fyfe played, even though the stats may not totally show it.

“He just about made all the plays that he could have made that had any semblance of just giving him enough time to do it,” Riley said of Fyfe, who was sacked four times. The Volunteers had another seven quarterback hurries.

Dzuris was there for tallying six tackles, including two for a loss.

There was no question Reilly would be there. The senior led the Huskers with 98 yards on four receptions, including two touchdowns on circus grabs.

That group of three chose to walk on at Nebraska over offers that included the likes of Nebraska-Kearney, North Dakota, Southwest Missouri and South Dakota.

The three Volunteers who sat next to Butch Jones at his post-game press conference included a consensus 4-star defensive end from Nashville and Tennessee’s new record holder for career sacks (Derek Barnett), a 5-star wide receiver and former Mr. Football from nearby Gallatin (Josh Malone) and an Elite 11 quarterback and 35-game starter from Georgia (Joshua Dobbs). That’s a quarterback, receiver and defensive end.

It’s not, however, an excuse or an explanation for why Nebraska lost on Friday, just a fact. If anything, it makes it even more remarkable that following a perfectly timed Fyfe touchdown run, Nebraska found itself down just a touchdown with 10:02 left.

Tennessee answered four plays later on a perfectly placed pass from Dobbs to Malone for a 59-yard touchdown. Malone led all receivers with 120 yards. Dobbs was particularly nightmarish for the Huskers, rushing for 118 yards, scrambling out of potential sacks for two touchdowns and completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 291 yards.

A few drives later, Barnett, after spending most of the afternoon in Nebraska’s backfield, finally got the sack he needed to break his tie with Reggie White.

“They did what we couldn’t allow them to do,” Riley said. “Kind of two major factors: We had a hard time blocking the defensive front, and of course, [Barnett] in particular, and then we gave up big plays.”

That’s what those players were expected to do when Tennessee signed them.
Nebraska’s trio of walk-ons had already done more than anyone would’ve imagined five years ago when they had the self-confidence to give major college football a try, the courage to follow a dream. They paid their way for a while. They went and found something to eat when their scholarship teammates went to the training table.

It’s a great story, one that resonates as loudly at Nebraska as anywhere else. But it’s two teams that seem to be playing a different game.

The expectations and circumstances, however, are largely the same. Tennessee and Nebraska had two great battles near the end of the 20th century. I saw much of the apparel from that era in and around Nissan Stadium this week. Both programs have been struggling to play for similar stakes since then.

This was supposed to be the year the Volunteers were back in the discussion. Instead they were in Nashville for New Year’s Eve eve. The Huskers were trying to bounce back from a season of missed opportunities in 2015 and, based on record, did. But losses in four of the last six games in 2016 change the perception a bit.

Tennessee will finish this season ranked somewhere around 20th. Nebraska will be right on the outside looking in. Which team is closer to getting back to where its fan bases so desperately want those programs to be?

Look to the podiums again. Tennessee has to replace Dobbs, probably Barnett and maybe Malone. All three will get a shot at the NFL eventually.

Nebraska has to replace all three and there’s nothing but question marks there. Are those replacements already on campus? Are they out there on the recruiting trail waiting to be convinced to come to Lincoln?

This was the end of year two under Riley, but year three feels like a sort of rebirth. The quarterback – likely on campus – will be more from the Riley mold. The receiver – maybe on campus, maybe not – will have an opportunity to catch a lot of passes. The defensive end, whoever it may be, may have the toughest job of all considering Nebraska’s struggles to maintain depth at that position.

“It’s kind of the end of one team and the beginning of another, as leadership emerges right after the results of this game are in and we get back to campus,” Riley said. “It should be a great motivator for the guys that were playing in this game that are coming back for next year’s team.”

Motivation, yes, but Nebraska’s never lacked for that. Not with its storied walk-on program. Not with guys like Fyfe, Reilly and Dzuris and countless others over the years working to make a dream come true. That may be the bedrock of the Nebraska football program.

The most important question for Nebraska football as it turns toward 2017, however, might be what it can build atop that foundation.

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