Starting S O'Hanlon takes hard road at Nebraska
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP)First, he had to try out just to make the team.
Then he had to endure three years on the scout unit, serving as practice meat for the guys who actually played in games.
This week, Nebraska safety Matt O'Hanlon was named the defensive player of the week in the Big 12 and, according to one outfit, the nation.
"I don't think I ever imagined it," he said. "I never thought all this stuff would come to me. I wanted to come here and be part of this tradition and be part of games like Nebraska-Oklahoma."
The senior safety was a big part of Nebraska's 10-3 win over the Sooners on Saturday, tying the school record with three interceptions and making a career-high 12 tackles.
The performance didn't just give him a measure of redemption for his blown coverage on Virginia Tech's winning touchdown drive in September. It also brought full circle a tale of the Nebraska kid who wouldn't give up on his dream of playing for the Cornhuskers.
"You hear about guys with something to prove," defensive tackle Jared Crick said. "Matty is that guy."
O'Hanlon grew up in the Omaha suburb of Bellevue, played quarterback and running back in high school, and hoped to some day play for the Huskers. The call never came, so O'Hanlon went to South Dakota, a Division II program at the time and the only school to offer him a scholarship.
He lasted only a few weeks.
"I went to fall camp, and it really wasn't for me," he said. "I always wanted to come here. I didn't want to be one of those guys who had regrets."
O'Hanlon headed back to Bellevue, took off the fall 2004 semester and looked for a new start with Bill Callahan, who was just getting his four-year coaching stint under way at Nebraska.
In February 2005, O'Hanlon was among 50 or 60 other hopefuls who showed up at the Cook Pavilion rec center for a tryout. He ran 40- and 10-yard dashes, and a couple other drills in front of strength coaches. No football coaches attended.
O'Hanlon was the only one to get a callback, and it didn't come for almost two weeks.
"In all reality," he said, "if I hadn't made the team, I would have been done."
The tough times were just starting for O'Hanlon. Callahan operated NFL-type practices with the starters getting the overwhelming majority of the work. O'Hanlon might have gotten two or three live snaps in a typical practice. He wondered if he should have stayed at South Dakota.
The hiring of Bo Pelini in December 2007 gave O'Hanlon a chance to start over. O'Hanlon said Pelini told the team that everyone was on equal footing, regardless of what other schools recruited him or how many stars he was awarded by recruiting services.
"I believed him," O'Hanlon said.
O'Hanlon beat out a host of players for the No. 1 free safety job last season and finished third on the team with 52 tackles. He also preserved the Gator Bowl win over Clemson with a pass breakup on a third-and-goal play in the final two minutes.
Because O'Hanlon never attended a class at South Dakota in 2004, the NCAA granted him eligibility for 2009. He again has anchored the free-safety spot and the Huskers (6-3, 3-2 Big 12) are in the conference hunt headed into Saturday's game at Kansas (5-4, 1-4).
O'Hanlon drew unwanted attention in the 16-15 loss at Virginia Tech when the man he was supposed to be covering caught an 81-yard pass to key the Hokies' winning touchdown drive.
Until his big night against Oklahoma, which earned him the Football Writers Association of America national defensive player of the week, it looked as if that play against the Hokies would be the one for which O'Hanlon was remembered.
"It was hard to not have that play replaying in my head every day," he said. "But to come back from that and have a good game like I did, I hope it doesn't erase the memory but substitutes it with something else."
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound O'Hanlon might never play another down of organized football after this season. If not, that's OK. He plans to move back to Bellevue with his wife, Abby, a registered nurse, and begin his career as a special-education teacher.
He can walk away satisfied.
"It's amazing I've come this far," he said.