LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) Nebraska’s Cole Conrad hopes his journey from small-school football star with no scholarship offers to starting center in the Big Ten can inspire players who feel as if they have been cheated by the sport.
Conrad appeared in all 13 games last season at right tackle and took over for injured starter David Knevel the final five games. He was put on scholarship for the first time in the spring and moved to center. Last week the junior was named the starter for the Sept. 2 opener against Arkansas State, and Monday he found out that he would continue to be on scholarship this fall.
”It’s a lot to wrap your head around,” Conrad said. ”I guess that’s what hard work and dedication does. A lot of people can learn from that. I’m not the last person who will do this. For all those young guys, you have to keep working and anything can happen.”
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Not much was happening in recruiting for Conrad when he was a senior at 120-student Archbishop Bergan High in Fremont in 2014. Some local NAIA schools, a couple Division IIs and FCS schools North Dakota State and South Dakota State made contact.
He thought NDSU had a scholarship for him, but that hope disappeared after a coaching change. He thought he had one locked up at SDSU and went there for a visit, only to find out there was no scholarship for him. He was back in his hotel room in Brookings, South Dakota, when Barney Cotton, then the offensive line coach at Nebraska, called to ask him to walk on.
”I told him, `Yeah.’ Right in Brookings. I didn’t talk to my parents. I just told him, `Yeah,’ ” Conrad said.
Conrad sat out 2014 as a redshirt, which was to be expected. He grew frustrated in 2015, having to adjust to a new coaching staff, not making the 105-man preseason roster and not appearing in a game.
”I knew I had what it took to play here,” he said. ”I have great support of my family and friends. They pushed me when I would doubt myself early on. I got here and didn’t make fall camp the first time, not the second time. That was kind of frustrating and I was down in the dumps.”
The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Conrad caught his break last year because of a shortage of depth on the offensive line.
”Given the opportunity,” coach Mike Riley said, ”he proved himself to be a good football player, a very reliable person.”
With the departure of last year’s center, Dylan Utter, and a healthy Knevel back at right tackle, line coach Mike Cavanaugh pegged Conrad as a candidate for a position change in the spring.
”Cav went up to me and asked me, `Hey, are you a smart guy?’ I’m like, `I can be.’ That’s when they transitioned me into center,” Conrad said. ”I had never played it before. It just came kind of natural, snapping the ball.”
Of course, there’s more to playing center than snapping the ball. The center must quickly look at how the defensive linemen and linebackers are aligned and call out adjustments to his offensive line mates and then execute his blocking assignment after the snap.
”That’s the thing I struggled with first off, not just lining up and blocking a guy,” he said.
His winning the position battle against Michael Decker was a mild upset. Decker played for high school power Omaha North and was ranked as one of the top two high school prospects in the state in 2015. He was the top backup to Utter last year.
”It was neck-and-neck for a while,” Conrad said. ”I thought he might have had a better spring than me, honestly.”
And now, to the delight of Conrad and parents Jim and Christy Conrad, he has his scholarship.
”They’ve been helping me financially,” he said, ”so it’s always nice to give back to them so they don’t have to worry about that. It’s tough being a walk-on, to be honest with you, if you don’t have support from family members.
”If you’re doing it on your own, taking out loans, it’s a grind and big commitment. I tip my hat to the walk-ons. I was a walk-on, I’ll always be a walk-on. You have that chip on your shoulder, that mentality.”
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