This is my countdown of the greatest Nebraska Cornhuskers to wear each jersey number, 1-99. For background on the project, click here. We’re going to start at #99 and work our way down to #1. For each number, I’ll list the best player to wear that number, some of the other memorable Huskers to don that jersey, as well as a personal favorite of mine.
We’re getting started with number 99 through 90. Lots of defensive tackles and ends, some tight ends, linebackers, and a few kickers thrown in for good measure.
Best Player: Neil Smith, Defensive Tackle, 1985 – 1987
Other notables: Terry Connealy, Mike Petko, Barry Turner, Jason Wiltz
Personal Favorite: Terry Connealy, Defensive Tackle, 1992 – 1994
Comments: A great start to the countdown. Smith was a dominating defensive tackle who earned All Big 8 and All America honors in 1987. Smith is easily on the short list of greatest defensive linemen to ever play at Nebraska. As for Connealy, he was never the biggest, strongest, or flashiest guy – but he was one of those guys who just got it done. His sack of Frank Costa towards the end of the 1995 Orange Bowl helped to seal the game and the first national championship of my lifetime.
Best Player: Grant Wistrom, Rush End, 1994 – 1997
Other notables: Zach Potter
Personal Favorite: Wistrom
Comments: A complete no-brainer. Wistrom was a three-time all conference player, a two-time All-American, and won the 1997 Lombardi Trophy. He was one of the cornerstones of the 1995 and 1997 championship teams. Since he graduated, very few players since have been even remotely comparable with Wistrom in terms of pass rushing ability, and team leadership – let alone both. Hopefully, the rest of the list will be this easy…
Best Player: Dan Titchener, Punter, 2004 – 2008
Other notables: Toby Williams, Pat Engelbert, Jeff Ogard
Personal Favorite: Jeff Ogard, Defensive Tackle, 1994 – 1996
Comments: Okay…so not every number has been worn by a College or future NFL Hall of Famer. But this is a definitely a big drop-off. 97 is one of six numbers at Nebraska to never to be worn by a first team all-conference player. And for my eyes, the pickins’ were slim. I know that Titchener wasn’t the greatest punter NU has ever had (he followed Sam Koch and preceded Alex Henery), but he was a three-year starter during the Callahan era when the offense was inconsistent and the defense was shaky, so not only did he get lots of reps, he helped defenses that desperately needed his help. Quite frankly, if I remembered more about Toby Williams’ career, I’d probably pick him, but I was 8 when he left NU. From what I read, he sounded like a good player who went on to a nice NFL career (but again, this isn’t about what a player did in the league).
As for Jeff Ogard, he was a favorite mainly for his name*. When he made a tackle, I’d yell “Ooooo-Gard” in a deep, throaty voice. My buddy would reference the cinematic classic “Revenge of the Nerds” by saying “Ogard, you a______.”
*I told you up front that some of the personal favorites could be rather silly, no?
Best Player: Jimmy Williams, Defensive End, 1979 – 1981
Other notables: George Andrews, Brett Maher, Lawrence Pete, Jim Skow, Steve Warren
Personal Favorite: Brett Maher, Punter/Place Kicker, 2008 – 2012
Comments: A strong competition as Williams, Andrews, and Skow all earned All-America honors. Skow is a classic NU story – the guy who paid his dues and was looking like a career backup before starting as a senior and becoming All-America. From what I have heard, Andrews was the 1970s version of Grant Wistrom – a stud defensive end who also got it done in the classroom. Per his huskers.com bio, Williams was once the fastest Husker of all time in the 40 yard dash (4.34). I gave the nod to Williams for putting together a slightly better career.
As for Maher, I love his story: The walk-on career backup who has to replace one of the greatest players at his position(s). Everybody (myself included) expects a huge drop-off in production from the position. So all he does is hit 16 of 17 field goals inside of 50 yards (19 of 23 overall) while averaging 44.5 yards per punt (6th best in school history), and follows that up with a strong senior season.
Best Player: Danny Noonan, Defensive Tackle, 1984 – 1986
Other notables: Pierre Allen
Personal Favorite: Noonan
Comments: A personal aside: As a kid, I would hear people yelling “Miss it!! Noonan!!” at my high school’s basketball games when the other team was shooting free throws. I could not figure out what Nebraska’s All-America defensive tackle had to do with free throws. And then around age 12, I saw Caddyshack on TV…
Best Player: Jared Crick, Defensive Tackle, 2007 – 2011
Other notables: Larry Townsend, Barry Cryer
Personal Favorite: Patrick Kabongo, Defensive Tackle, 2000 – 2003
Comments: I’m curious to see how Husker history remembers Jared Crick. Are they going to remember a guy whose senior season injury cost him a bunch of money in the NFL Draft? I’ve heard from people who were not impressed with his career (probably due to an underwhelming start to his senior season before being injured). Or are they going to remember the guy who benefitted greatly from the nearly constant double-teams Ndamukong Suh faced in 2009 (his five sack performance against Baylor was amazing). I’m hopeful that Crick is remembered as an excellent and athletic defender who performed admirably in Suh’s shadow and who showed tremendous loyalty in coming back for his senior season. Those guys will always have a special place in my heart.
Patrick Kabongo was not a star player – or even a starter, but I always enjoyed his energy and passion. If the game was close, the odds were good that Kabongo was jumping up and down on the bench, waving a towel to get the crowd into the game. I always felt bad for the folks in the lower rows who could not see over his 6’6″, 315 pound frame as he led cheers from the top of the bench.
Best Player: Ndamukong Suh, Defensive Tackle, 2005 – 2009
Other notables: Travis Hill, Jared Tomich
Personal Favorite: Suh
Comments: I don’t follow Husker recruiting very closely, but I remember reading the article in the Omaha World-Herald when Suh committed to NU, probably because of the unusual name (“House of Spears”. Seriously, how badass is that?) and his highly regarded potential. I remember seeing the flashes of potential in his first two seasons, but being frustrated with his inconsistency. Exit Cosgrove, enter Pelini. Exit average, enter extraordinary.
Suh’s senior season was one of the finest seasons I’ve had the privilege to witness*. His combination of brute strength and speed were amazing to watch. There were so many plays where all you could do was shake your head in awe of what he had just done – sacking OU’s Landry Jones by pushing his lineman on top of him, the interception return for a TD against Colorado, and the entire Big XII Championship game against Texas.
*Other amazing seasons that I’ve witnessed (off the top of my head): Eric Crouch, 2001; Grant Wistrom, 1997; Tommie Frazier, 1995, Lawrence Philips, 1994; Josh Bullocks, 2003; Alex Henery, 2010, Lavonte David, 2011, Dom Riaola, 2000. And I’m sure there are others I’m forgetting…
With all that Suh did on defense, it is easy to forget some of his other accomplishments such as being excellent at blocking kicks, and serving as a short yardage fullback.
Best Player: Derrie Nelson, Defensive End, 1977 – 1980
Other notables: John Parella
Personal Favorite: Travis Toline, Rush End, 1994 – 1998
Comments: A walk-on, Nelson was a defensive force for the Blackshirts in the late 70s, but took it to another level for the 1980 season where he earned All Big 8 and All America honors in addition to being the Big 8 Defensive Player of the Year.
Most of the time when I’m watching a game, I’ll follow the ball and not concentrate on what individual players are doing away from the action. But when Nebraska kicks off, the opposite is true. I’ll shoot a couple of glances towards the ball, but I’m usually locked in on the “wedge buster” – the guy on kickoffs who lines up right in the middle of the field, goes sprinting down the field, and blows up anything in his path. Obviously the high likelihood of big collisions is a draw, but I like watching this position for the passion and energy that goes into it. It doesn’t matter if the wedge buster gets double teamed, knocked down, or anything else – he keeps going 100 mph until the whistle blows.
Plus, for the most part, the guy in this role is not in the two-deep in his position, so unless the game is a blowout, the only way he’ll see the field is on special teams. Combine that with the fact that the wedge buster role is often filled by a walk-on, and this is a position that I’ll always have an appreciation for. While a couple of my other favorite wedge busters (Brandon Rigoni and Eric Martin) will show up later on, the one that got me started on watching the position was Travis Toline. I loved how he always looked like a runaway train going down the field (think of Eric Martin as a white walk-on from Wahoo).
Best Player: Kent Wells, Defensive Tackle, 1987 – 1989
Other notables: Loran Kaiser, Ryan Terwilliger
Personal Favorite: Loran Kaiser, Defensive Tackle, 1997 – 2000
Comments: Another number where the pickins are slim. I don’t have a great recollection of Wells’s playing career or recall him being a true stand-out player, but his All Big 8 recognition in 1989 gets him the nod over Kaiser, Terwillinger, and others. Let me know in the comments if there is somebody more deserving.
To be honest, I didn’t have a great, deep affinity for watching Kaiser play he was my favorite of the eight Huskers that have worn 91 in the last 15-20 years. Okay….moving on….
Best Player: Alex Henery, Place Kicker/Punter, 2007 – 2010
Other notables: Adam Carriker, John Dutton, Scott Strasburger
Personal Favorite: Henery
Comments: I always thought 90 was an odd number of a kicker. During Henery’s freshman year (2007), I joked with a buddy that 90 wasn’t just his number, it was his weight. Therefore, it is rather fitting that Henery edges out an All-American (Dutton) whom huskers.com describes as “biggest of the all the Blackshirts.”
You’ll often hear Husker fans debating the loudest moments in Memorial Stadium’s long history. While I may put a couple of other moments ahead of Henery’s 57 yard field goal against Colorado, (Crouch’s TD catch against Oklahoma in 2001, for example) that is definitely near the top of the list.
Fun Fact – Alex Henery is the only Husker to be named 1st team All-America, but not be named 1st team all conference. Great job Big XII coaches and writers!