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.
Numbers 29 through 20 are all about speed. Cornerbacks, I-Backs, safeties, rovers, wingbacks, heck – even some of the fullbacks had speed to burn. Plus, one of my all-time favorite Huskers shows up in the twenties…
Best Player: Jim Pillen, Defensive Back, 1976 – 1978
Other notables: None
Personal Favorite: Pillen
Comments: Is this number jinxed? There are notorious names (Scott Baldwin, Kellen Huston), disappointing transfers (Jordan Congdon, Collins Okafor), and a bunch of guys you’ve probably never heard of (Seth Rexilius, Pat Friesen, Mic Boettner). Only one person has ever earned all conference honors while wearing #29. That man is Jim Pillen. Pillen was a two time All Big 8 selection, earned Academic All-American honors, and was inducted to the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
But most folks (myself included) remember Pillen for his moment in Husker lore: 1978 versus Oklahoma. Nebraska is clinging to a late lead when Billy Sims fumbles. Pillen recovers the fumble and Tom Osborne earns a signature win.
Best Player: Jeff Smith, I-Back, 1981 – 1984
Other notables: Eric Hagg, Dave Gillespie, Jamel Williams
Personal Favorite: Jamel Williams, Linebacker, 1994 – 1996
Comments: How good of an I-Back was Jeff Smith? Did we ever really know? Sure, we saw the flashes – 473 yards in the first ten quarters of his senior year, an excellent punt returner, and of course, his off-the-bench heroics in the 1984 Orange Bowl – including the 24 yard TD (on fourth and 1) that set up Tom Osborne’s legacy-defining decision.
But we never got to see the full promise of Smith’s potential as he spent his first two varsity seasons backing up a couple of guys named Craig and Rozier. And after racking up those 473 yards in the first ten quarters of 1984, he had an ankle injury that limited to just 462 the rest of the way. Even so, Smith left Nebraska as the 10th leading rusher in school history. Who knows what might have happened in a different time and place?
When I think of Jamel Williams, I think of how he was part of the new breed of Husker linebackers as Osborne and Charlie McBride abandoned the 5-3 defense. Instead of the lumbering LB with the oversized shoulder pads and neck roll, Williams was sleek, fast, and explosive. I’ll always remember his sack and safety of Danny Wuerffel in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. Everybody in the stadium knew Williams was coming, but nobody could do anything about it.
Best Player: Irving Fryar, Wingback, 1981 – 1983
Other notables: Joe Blahak
Personal Favorite: Abdul Muhammad, Wingback, 1991 – 1994
Comments: Irving Fryar, by some accounts, may have been the most talented of the Scoring Explosion “triplets”, and yet I think he is the least heralded. While understandable (Rozier won the Heisman and Turner Gill was the QB as well as a long time assistant coach), I think that is a shame. Consider: On the magical 1983 squad, Fryar touched the ball 83 times (catches, runs, and kick returns). He averaged a staggering 14.6 yards per touch, and his yards per reception was 19.5.
Fryar easily earned All Big 8 and All-America honors – (side note: do you understand how rare it is – and how good you need to be – to earn consensus All-America honors on a team that leads the nation in rushing? Think about it, if your offense is rolling up 400 yards rushing every game, how many opportunities will you get to catch passes? That’s probably why Fryar was only the second player to ever do it, with another Husker legend – Freeman White – being the first). Fryar went on to become Nebraska’s first #1 pick in the NFL draft.
When you looked at Abdul Muhammad, you saw a small guy: 5’9″ and 160 pounds soaking wet. But his diminutive size didn’t keep him from being a top receiver for Tommie Frazier, a strong blocker, and tough dude. It must have been the bullet that was rather famously logged in his backside…
Best Player: Wonder Monds, Defensive Back, 1973 – 1975
Other notables: Josh Brown, Clinton Childs, Tom Rathman, Marvin Sanders
Personal Favorite: Tom Rathman, Fullback, 1982 – 1985
Comments: Wonderful Terrific Monds, Jr. (yep, that is his real name) is more than just a hall of fame unique name or an Afro that would make Kenny Bell jealous. Monds was a standout defensive back on some very talented teams. He was sprinter fast, yet large enough to pack a punch. He earned All-America honors as a senior and went on to play in the NFL.
One of my most vivid Husker memories from my childhood is right as I turned on the game, Tom Rathman was sprinting down the field en route to a 60 yard touchdown against Florida State. That probably helped to foster my love of Nebraska-born fullbacks. Rathman is arguably the greatest fullback Nebraska ever had, owning the position records for yards and tying the mark for touchdowns. An amazing stat that will probably never be duplicated: in his senior year (1985) a fullback was the fifth leading rusher in the Big 8.
Best Player: Joe Walker, Rover, 1997 – 2000
Other notables: Kyler Reed, Jon Vedral
Personal Favorite: Walker
Comments: Technically, Joe Walker makes this list as a Rover, but he could just as well be listed solely for his work as a kick returner. Walker owns, or is near the top of, almost all of the kickoff and punt return records in school history. His return prowess wasn’t limited to kicks – he also tied the school record for interceptions returned for touchdowns in a career. The combo makes him one of a handful of players in NCAA history to return a punt, kickoff, and interception for a touchdown.
Best Player: Bill Kosch, Safety, 1969 – 1971
Other notables: Niles Paul
Personal Favorite: Brandon Rigoni, Safety, 2003 – 2006
Comments: Bill Kosch was a standout safety for Bob Devaney’s national championship teams in 1970 and 1971. An All Big 8 selection in both 1970 and 1971, Kosch recorded several interceptions, including one that he returned 95 yards for a touchdown against Texas A&M. Fun fact: while there have been multiple father/son duos at Nebraska, only Bill Kosch and son Jesse have all five national championship rings from their playing careers.
If you’ve been following the countdown, you probably know by now that there are two roster positions that I have an affinity for: fullback and kickoff wedge buster. With apologies to Eric Martin, Brandon Rigoni is my favorite wedge buster of all time. Why? Because a 5’6″, 185 pound walk-on would probably be one of the last guys you would pick to lead your kickoff team down the field. For three seasons, nothing made me happier than watching Rigoni take the form of human bowling ball and seeing him de-cleat some unsuspecting return man or blocker.
Best Player: Mark Blazek, Safety, 1986 – 1988
Other notables: None
Personal Favorite: Lance Thorell, Defensive Back, 2007 – 2011
Comments: This is another number with a single first team all conference pick, so the choices are a little slim. I’m going with Mark Blazek as he was at least honorable mention All Big 8 in his junior and senior seasons. Blazek had a knack for getting an interception in big games. A bright student, Blazer earned Academic All-America honors as a senior.
Lance Thorell is a great success story from the walk-on program. A kid from tiny class D-1 Loomis, he worked his way onto the field as a redshirt freshman, earning five starts. And despite competing with scholarship guys from bigger schools with more recruiting stars, Thorell kept working his way onto the field, playing in every game in his final three seasons including multiple starts. Off the field, Thorell was academic all conference and a four time member of the Brook Berringer Citizenship Team.
Best Player: Ralph Brown, Cornerback, 1996 – 1999
Other notables: Kenny Brown, Rex Burkhead, Doug DuBose
Personal Favorite: Jeff Makovicka, Fullback, 1993 – 1995
Comments: How good of a cornerback was Ralph Brown? He was a starter in his very first game at Nebraska, for the two-time defending national champs and was named Big XII Defensive Freshman of the Year. Over the course of his legendary Nebraska career, Brown rewrote the records for pass breakups, setting the marks for a game (7), season (15), and career (50). As one of Nebraska’s greatest cornerbacks of all time, Brown was all conference three straight years and All-America as a senior. After that first start, Brown started each of the other 51 games in his NU career, setting another record.
As for my personal favorite, this was both the hardest and easiest choice to make. The first (and only) Nebraska jersey I ever owned was a mid-80’s Doug DuBose #22. Rex Burkhead is one of my all time favorite Huskers – for his play on the field and especially for what he did for Jack Hoffman and his family.
But there is no doubt that I would go with Makovicka. Why? As a freshman at UNL in 1993, I was able to attend all of the home games for the first time, instead of the one or two a year my Dad and I went to. The ’93 team was pretty darn good, so they had a number of blowout wins. Once the rout was on, I loved being able to move down 20-30 rows, find an abandoned seat back and watch guys my age fulfill the dream of every Nebraska kid.
One of those players was Jeff Makovicka. In 93, he was a fourth string I-Back and would get a handful of carries late in the game. I loved the rhythmic way the stadium P.A. announcer say “Ball care-reed by Mack-oh-vick-ah”. From there, I adopted Jeff as one of my original personal favorites – a fondness that only grew when he moved to fullback, and was followed by his little brother Joel. It was a sad day for me when the last of Mackovickas chose to play baseball…at Creighton, but I’ll always remember their big brother picking up seven yards against North Texas.
Best Player: Mike Brown, Rover, 1996 – 1999
Other notables: Prince Amukamara, Derek Brown, Kaye Carstens, Roger Craig
Personal Favorite: Brown
Comments: Considering that two numbers in the twenties had no all conference picks (23 and 25), #21 is stacked with contenders. You could certainly make a case for Prince, Roger Craig, or a different Brown (Derek), but my choice is Mike Brown.
The position name “Rover” is such an apt description for how Mike Brown played football. He roved sideline to sideline, from goal line to the opponent’s backfield making plays. Brown ended his career second on the all-time tackle charts, which is no surprise considering that Mike Brown is the greatest open field tackler I have ever seen. Period. Brown was a multi-year starter and earned All Big XII and All-America honors in his senior season as he led arguably the greatest defense in school history.
Best Player: Johnny Rodgers, Wingback, 1970 – 1972
Other notables: Michael Booker, Josh Bullocks
Personal Favorite: Josh Bullocks, Cornerback, 2002 – 2004
Comments: I truly believe that all Nebraska schoolchildren, when they go through their Nebraska history and social studies coursework in the fourth grade should be required to memorize Lyle Bremser’s legendary call of Johnny “the Jet” Rodgers tearing ’em loose from their shoes.
As they learn the proper Bremser cadence, they should also learn about the legendary Jet himself: All conference three times. All-America twice. Two time national champion. One time owner of 41 school records. Heisman Trophy. And one of the few players to defeat the Heisman bowl game curse, as he scored five touchdowns (three rushes, a reception, and a 52 yard pass) in a romp over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.
I will never forget the season the Josh Bullocks put together in 2003. He set the tone with two interceptions against Okie State and followed it up with eight more over the course of the season, setting a school record of 10 INTs – a total that would have made him the 8th best team in the Big XII.
Next: 19 – 10
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(Author’s note: Wondering why there is a random letter in parentheses in the title of this post? Not sure how this post corresponds to the daily letter in the April A to Z Challenge? Like clicking on links? These questions are all answered here.)