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.
As we near the home stretch, we get into the teens. Lots of defensive backs, I-Backs, and as one might expect, lots and lots of quarterbacks, including one of the most famous players in school history. A guy so popular and beloved, fans still wear his #15 jersey years after he graduated: Beau Davis.
Best Player: Kyle Larson, Punter, 2000 – 2003
Other notables: None
Personal Favorite: John Klem, Split End, 1999 – 2002
Comments: The pride of tiny Funk, Nebraska, Larson was one of the greatest punters in school history. A three year starter, Larson averaged over 43 yards per punt, which put him second all time at Nebraska, with 30% of his kicks going over 50 yards.
As a senior, Larson set the school record for yards per punt (45.12), was a consensus All Big XII pick, an All-American, and one of three finalists for the Ray Guy Award, which is given to the nation’s best punter.
When you see that John Klem was a “split end”, you would likely assume that he was a receiver. Maybe he was a “possession” guy or a maybe a deep threat, but certainly a guy who would catch his fair share of passes. John Klem played in, by my rough count, 32 games at Nebraska over his four seasons. He caught one pass. For nine yards. In the fourth quarter of a non-conference game with Nebraska up by 45.
Frankly, this is what makes me love John Klem.
Klem was a blocker. Period. With apologies to recent standouts like Quincy Enunwa, Niles Paul, and Kenny Bell, Klem is one of the best blocking receivers to ever play at Nebraska. Part of the reason is there was little deception in his game. My buddy Husker Luke figured it out early on: when Klem is on the field, it is going to be a run. Even if it’s 3rd and 9, if Klem was out there, it was likely going to be a run.
How effective of a blocker was John Klem? Consider this from his junior season (2001): He played major minutes in Nebraska’s first 11 games, and NU was undefeated. After a torn ACL against K State knocked him out for the remainder of the season, Nebraska lost their final two games by a combined 99-50. I’m not saying the 2001 team wins a national championship with a healthy John Klem, but it would have helped.
Best Player: Jon Bostick, Split End, 1989 – 1991
Other notables: Jim Anderson, Quincy Enunwa
Personal Favorite: Brook Berringer, Quarterback, 1992 – 1995
Comments: Jon Bostick was one of the finest split ends Nebraska had in the ten years before the champion era began. He earned All Big 8 honors as a senior, working opposite of talented tight end Johnny Mitchell, but Bostick was more than just some guy who benefited from relaxed coverages.
I love the story on this Huskers.com page that talks about how Bostick had to be pulled out of a redshirt four games into the 1989 season. In his first game (against Oregon State), his first catch goes for a 60 yard TD. Bostick followed that up with 176 yard and four TDs in his next two games.
I will always have a great fondness and appreciation for Brook Berringer’s career. He was easily the finest passing quarterback at Nebraska in the twenty-five years between Dave Humm and Zac Taylor, but he was also deceptively good running the option. Sure, I always thought Brook looked a little stiff on his options, but compared with Tommie Frazier, anybody is going to look less than fluid.
I sometimes wonder if Brook gets enough credit for the role he played on the 1994 championship team – not only running the team while Frazier battled blood clots, but also for keeping Nebraska within striking distance in the Orange Bowl so Frazier and Cory Schlesinger could do their thing.
I was a student at UNL when Berringer died, just a few weeks before the NFL draft, and his passing really shook me. It was sobering to realize that a guy who seemingly had everything (talent, brains, looks, a desire to give back) could be taken far too soon. I commend the University for that they’ve done to honor Brook’s memory and his legacy.
Best Player: Reggie Cooper, Safety, 1987 – 1990
Other notables: Ciante Evans, Dan Hadenfeldt
Personal Favorite: Todd Peterson, Wide Receiver, 2004 – 2008
Comments: Reggie Cooper may have been a player ahead of his time. At 6’3″ and 210 pounds, he was a man among boys in the defensive backfield. Cooper used that size and speed to earn four letters, All Big 8 honors twice, honorable mention All-America twice, and finish as the leading tackler among defensive backs. The game may have changed since Cooper’s day, but there will always be room for a guy like him.
Todd Peterson also had prototypical size at his position. As a 6’4″, 215 pound wide receiver, he gave his quarterbacks a big target and sure hands. And while Peterson had an excellent career (top five in school history in receptions and receiving yards), he’s a personal favorite for how he did it.
Peterson walked on to Nebraska in 2004, the same year that new coach Bill Callahan infamously took an axe to the storied walk-on program – choosing to pursue highly touted recruits over in-state guys from Class C-1 schools.
But Peterson’s talent was too much to deny. He made it on the field as a redshirt freshman, and was starting by the end of the season. From there, he became a reliable presence and kept several three and four star recruits on the bench. Additionally, Peterson was equally strong in the classroom, and was a leader in community involvement.
Best Player: Maurice Purify, Wide Receiver, 2006 – 2007
Other notables: None
Personal Favorite: Mike Stuntz, Quarterback/Wingback/Safety, 2001 – 2005
Comments: Sixteen is the final number in the countdown to have never produced a first team all conference selection, although it certainly seemed like Maurice Purify would be the one to break that barrier (he was second team All Big 12 as a junior in 1996).
Purify was big, fast, and strong. Arguably, he was one of the most physically gifted receivers Nebraska has ever had. Purify excelled in deep routes, short routes, and his specialty: the jump ball. His 9 yard catch of a Zac Taylor lob at Texas A&M capped a huge comeback and helped the Huskers win the Big XII North division crown in 2006.
I’ve always been fascinated by the guys who participate in the biggest of plays on the biggest of stages. Is it foundation for a strong career, or is it a pinnacle that is never approached again? Mike Stuntz is a good example of the latter.
Recruited as a quarterback, he made it on the field as a true freshman in 2001. As a wingback, he threw one of the most famous passes in school history: Black 41 Flash Reverse to Heisman Trophy winner Erich Crouch. In 2002, he moved back to quarterback, he was 10-25 passing for 100 yards.
From there, Stuntz bounced over to defense seeing mop-up and special teams duty. Aside from Black 41 Flash Reverse, his biggest claim to fame was dating the “hot tutor” from the Tommy Lee Goes to College “reality” show.
Best Player: Tommie Frazier, Quarterback, 1992 – 1995
Other notables: Bob Churchich, Alfonzo Dennard, Vince Ferragamo
Personal Favorite: Frazier
Comments: If I were to call Tommie Frazier the greatest Husker player in the last 50 years would you disagree? What about the greatest of all time? Still no? Certainly you could make a case for a handful of other guys (the three Heisman winners, Suh, Bobby Reynolds, or Train Wreck Novak), right? Or you could try to break down Tommie by citing his stats – especially his career completion percentage of 49.5%. But Touchdown Tommie Fraz-ah would still win.
Because that’s what Tommie Frazier did.
A Big 8 best 33-3 as a starter – a mark that would have been even higher if he didn’t miss seven games due to blood clots – you knew that when #15 went under center, or more appropriately, started running the triple option, that Nebraska was going to win. Oh those option plays. For my money, Tommie’s position coach Turner Gill is the only one who came close to matching Frazier’s mastery of Osborne’s signature play. Frazier had a true gift for knowing when to pitch or when to keep as he glided down the field.
As good as Frazier was in regular games, he was even better in bowl games. True, his bowl record sits at 2-2, but consider that his first bowl loss (in the 1993 Orange Bowl) was as a true freshman. The blame for the second bowl loss could be placed on a number of people (i.e. some dubious missed calls, two defensive penalties that allowed FSU to score with 1:16 left, or the right leg of Byron Bennett), but there is no way Frazier could be blamed for giving his team every chance to win a National Championship.
From there, Frazier’s big game dominance took off. It took most of the first quarter of the 1994 Orange Bowl to shake off, but Frazier all but willed Nebraska to Tom Osborne’s first National Championship. In 1995, he was even better. Frazier used and abused Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators, racking up 199 rushing yards and two touchdowns, including one play known simply as The Run.
The only regret I have about Tommie Frazier’s career is that he played in an era where Heisman voters viewed the award not as it should be (college football’s most outstanding player), but as “who will have the best NFL career”? This led to one of the greatest injustices of the 20th Century as Eddie George stole Tommie Frazier’s Heisman.
Best Player: Jerry Tagge, Quarterback, 1969 – 1971
Other notables: Dennis Claridge, Gerry Gdowski, Barron Miles,
Personal Favorite: Barron Miles, Cornerback, 1992 – 1994
Comments: Before there was Tommie, there was Jerry. Jerry Tagge was the quarterback on the first two National Championship teams in school history (1970 and 1971). Like Frazier, all Tagge did was win, compiling a stellar record as a starting quarterback, and playing his best games on the biggest stages. In the 1971 Orange Bowl against LSU, Tagge was an impressive 12 of 15 passing against one of the nation’s best defenses. It was his QB sneak from the one yard line that clinched the championship.
Tagge earned All Big 8 and All-America honors after the 1971 season, and finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy voting. Although his accomplishments may have been overshadowed by those of Frazier and other famous Husker QBs, Tagge should be remembered for setting the standard of excellence.
Pure and simple, Barron Miles was a play maker. An excellent cornerback, Miles had a knack for the ball and always seemed in position to make a big play. Over his career, he had seven blocked kicks, 19 pass break ups (including six in one game) and numerous “wow” moments. My favorite Baron Miles moment was in 1993 at Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were punting from their own end zone when Miles came streaking in for the block. He ended up catching the ball just off the foot of the punter and rolling onto the turf with a momentum shifting touchdown.
Best Player: Carlos Polk, Linebacker, 1997 – 2000
Other notables: Zac Taylor
Personal Favorite: Polk
Comments: From the mid 80s through the mid 90s, the best Blackshirts were usually lined up at outside linebacker/rush end. The four-year career of Carlos Polk marked a shift, as the best Blackshirt was usually the guy anchoring the middle linebacker position. I’m talking about guys like Polk, Barrett Ruud, Lavonte David, and to a lesser extent Phillip Dillard, Steve Octavien, and even another #13 from a defensively challenged era: Corey McKeon.
But let’s focus on Polk, a bruiser with deceptive speed and a strong nose for the football. A four-year contributor, he was a two time All Big XII performer, and an anchor on one of the finest defenses in school history (1999). He was named first team All-America in his senior season.
Best Player: Turner Gill, Quarterback, 1981 – 1983
Other notables: Dave Humm, Jarvis Redwine
Personal Favorite: Gill
Comments: Keep in mind, we’re only here to talk about Gill’s playing career, which is kind of too bad considering Gill coached three of the finest quarterbacks in school history (Frazier, Scott Frost, and Eric Crouch) while being a valued lieutenant to both Osborne and Frank Solich, before taking Buffalo from laughingstock to conference champion. Of course, Gill is not short of accomplishments as a player.
Let’s start with the biggest one: he had the keys to one of the greatest offenses in NCAA history and operated it with the skill and precision of a race car driver. Take a moment to truly appreciate this: The 1983 Huskers, quarterbacked by Turner Gill, averaged 52 points and almost 550 yards of offense per game. Gill became the first Husker quarterback to rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. His greatness stretched back to his first start when he set a (then) school record with four touchdown passes in a game against Colorado.
Gill was named All Big 8 three times, finished fourth in the 1983 Heisman Trophy vote.
Best Player: Matt Herian, Tight End, 2002 – 2006
Other notables: None
Personal Favorite: Matt Turman, Quarterback, 1993 – 1996
Comments: Matt Herian was another player ahead of his time. The guy with the tight end size and wide receiver hands and speed, today’s NFL is full of guys who have the same skill set as Herian.
He exploded onto the scene as a freshman, catching seven passes for 301 yards (an absolutely ridiculous 43 yards per catch) and four touchdowns. Yes, you read the correctly: 57% of his freshman year receptions went for touchdowns.
Unfortunately, Herian is also a starter on all-time “What Could Have Been” team. During his junior season in 2004, the first in Bill Callahan’s West Coast Offense, Herian was a putting together another excellent season when he suffered a nasty leg injury against Mizzou. Herian sat out the entire 2005 season, and came back for the 2006 campaign, but he just wasn’t the same player. I believe the sky would have been the limit for a healthy Herian.
To fully appreciate Matt Turman, we must put ourselves in his shoes the morning of October 15, 1994. The greatest player in school history (Frazier) is out. His backup, a legitimate NFL prospect (Berringer) is out too. That leaves you, a 185 pound walk on from a Class C school to try to guide your 6-0,#2 ranked team to victory at #16 Kansas State, a team that had a very stout defense. Granted, his moment of greatness consisted mostly of handing the ball to Lawrence Phillips and getting out the way, but still, Matt Turman – a.k.a. The Turmanator – may be the least likely guy to ever lead a championship-level team to victory.
Best Player: Bret Clark, Safety, 1981 – 1984
Other notables: Charles Fryar, Keithen McCant, Mike Minter
Personal Favorite: Roy Helu, Jr., I-Back, 2007 – 2010
Comments: Bret Clark was an excellent safety for Tom Osborne’s early 80s teams. Clark had a great talent for breaking up passes, tying the school record for pass break ups (8) in his sophomore and senior seasons. He finished his NU career holding the school record for PBU. During his senior season, Clark led the team in pass break ups, interceptions, and fumbles recovered. A two-time All Big 8 player, Clark also earned All-America honors as a senior.
Roy Helu, Jr. is one of my favorite I-Backs from the last 20 years. He combined speed, power, vision, and a love for hurdling over defenders to become one of the most vaunted rushers in school history. Two memories of Helu stand out: 2009 at Kansas, Nebraska is in a dogfight until the Huskers decide to put the game on Helu’s shoulders. Despite several nagging injuries, Helu picked up 85 yards and two critical touchdowns on Nebraska’s final two drives.
And then there is his masterpiece: 2010 versus Missouri. On NU’s first play, Helu went 66 yards for a touchdown. Later in one of the most complete quarters of football Nebraska has ever played, Helu went for a career long 73 yard TD run. When it was all said and done, Helu had 307 rushing yards (and 317 all-purpose) breaking Calvin Jones’s twenty year old record of 294. It was one of the most dominating performances I’ve had the pleasure to watch at Memorial Stadium.
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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.)