This is my countdown of the greatest Nebraska Cornhuskers to wear each jersey number, 1-99. For background on the project, click here. We started at #99 and we’re working 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.
Next up are numbers 89 through 80. There is a pretty even split between offense (split ends, wide receivers, tight ends, and a couple of wing backs) and defense (defense ends, rush ends, and linebackers).
Best Player: Broderick Thomas, Outside Linebacker, 1985 – 1988
Other notables: Frosty Anderson, Mitch Krenk, Junior Miller
Personal Favorite: Thomas
Comments: The Sandman was a player ahead of his time. Big, fast, and brash he was a three time All Big 8 pick and two time All American. Thomas was one of the first in Nebraska’s stretch of game changing pass rushers (including Mike Croel, Trev Alberts, Grant Wistrom, and others). But yet, Thomas seems to be remembered more for what he said than what he did. When you think about all of the trash talking players of today, making bold proclamations before games, its hard to believe that the Sandman was doing those things almost 30 years ago. I liked the passion and swagger that Thomas brought to NU, and I can think of a number of teams since he left that could have used somebody with his personality (and talents).
Best Player: Mike Croel, Outside Linebacker, 1987 – 1990
Other notables: Eric Alford, Guy Ingles, Sheldon Jackson, Trevor Johnson
Personal Favorite: Rod Smith, Split End, 1985 – 1988
Comments: Like Broderick Thomas, Croel was a pioneer in Nebraska’s run of disruptive pass rushers. A stellar pass rusher, Croel helped anchor the defensive line. I gave Croel the nod over Ingles mainly for the legacy he helped to create on the defensive line, but I’d gladly listen to a case for Guy the Fly as the best.
Rod Smith is a part of one of my favorite Husker memories: Growing up, my dad would find tickets to one Husker game each year, which was a huge thrill for me. I loved seeing the team, the stadium, the band, the people, the Sea of Red – the whole experience was amazing and electric for a small town Nebraska kid.
In 1987, we had tickets for the UCLA game – a big step from the games we usually saw (New Mexico, Iowa State, etc.) Before one play, I was watching the huddle with Dad’s binoculars. I saw Steve Taylor call the play, and as the huddle broke, he gave Smith a pat on the rear. I announced “I think they’re going to Smith”. Taylor took the snap, faked the option, dropped back, and hit Smith with a 48 yard bomb (one of Taylor’s five passing TDs that day). A very cool memory for me, and one that helped to cement my love of Nebraska Football.
Best Player: Bob Martin, Defensive End, 1973 – 1975
Other notables: Tom Banderas, Mark Gilman, Nate Swift, Bill Weber, Tracey Wistrom
Personal Favorite: Nate Swift, Wide Receiver, 2004 – 2008
Comments: A three year starter, Martin was a force at defensive end earning All-Big 8 honors twice and All-America in his senior season. As a senior, 13 of his 61 tackles went for a loss. A native of David City, Martin was the high school athlete of the year when he graduated.
Swift never looked like a guy who should be at or near the top of many of Nebraska’s receiving records. He wasn’t that big, wasn’t that fast, and didn’t look like a game changing WR. (Personal aside – I was on a flight from Minneapolis to Lincoln when Swift and high school teammate Lydon Murtha came on their recruiting trip. Murtha looked like a D-1 prospect. Swift looked like his scrawny kid brother). But what he lacked in physical gifts he made up for with toughness, knowledge, and the ability to get open and make a catch when his team needed him.
Best Player: Johnny Mitchell, Tight End, 1990 – 1991
Other notables: Dwayne Harris
Personal Favorite: Mitchell
Comments: Another player that was ahead of his time, Johnny Mitchell was an electric pass catcher. Possessing tight end size with wide receiver speed, he was arguably Nebraska’s biggest threat in the passing game since Irving Fryar. Mitchell’s 1991 season featured some impressive numbers (31 receptions for 534 yards, and five TDs) considering he was a tight end on a run-heavy, option football team.
My friends and I coined the term “Johnny Mitchell Syndrome” due to his ability to make the impossibly hard, highlight reel catch while tending to drop balls that hit him right in the numbers. Mitchell was one of the first Huskers to leave school early for the NFL. Who knows what type of numbers he could have put up in his senior season.
Best Player: Freeman White, End, 1963 – 1965
Other notables: Jerry List
Personal Favorite: T.J. DeBates, Tight End, 1996 – 1999
Comments: Freeman White is one of the greatest receivers in school history. During his senior season (1965), he set school records in a number of single season and career categories including receiving yards in a game (139), longest reception (95 yards), career receptions (47), and career receiving yards (820). Along the way, White also picked up All-America honors and back-to-back All-Big 8 recognition.
On the other end of the spectrum is T.J. DeBates. Going into his senior year (1999), he had played in 28 games and had two catches for 23 yards and zero TDs. I like DeBates because of the role he and others like him played during the 1990’s – when he came on the field you could almost guarantee that Nebraska was going to run, and DeBates was essentially going to serve as a sixth offensive lineman. And yet, despite everyone from the opposing team’s defense to the kid in row 79 selling Runzas, few could stop what Nebraska was doing on offense. I have a lot of respect for the receivers and tight ends who could have gone elsewhere and caught more passes, but chose to be a blocker first at Nebraska. Plus, I’m guessing it made those three career receptions even sweeter.
Best Player: Tony Jeter, End, 1963 – 1965
Other notables: Willie Griffin, Donta Jones, Brandon Kinnie, Mike Rucker, Tim Smith
Personal Favorite: Mike Rucker, Defensive End, 1994 – 1998
Comments: Jeter was a standout receiver on the first Devaney teams, earning All Big-8 honors twice and All-America his senior season. To show how the times have changed, Jeter was the leading receiver on the 1963 team with 9 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown (but he also played considerable minutes on defense). More trivia: Jeter was the first black athlete in Nebraska history to earn academic All-America honors.
Although he never earned the accolades of Grant Wistrom, Jared Tomich, Trev Alberts and others, Mike Rucker is one of the best rush ends to ever play at Nebraska. Possessing a dangerous combination of speed and power, he was a force on the edge – and not too shabby as a blocker on the punt return team. On a personal note, we ran into his family at truck stop in Kansas on our way to the Oklahoma game in 1996, prompting my buddy to say “Hey, I think that is Mother Rucker!”
Best Player: Kyle Vanden Bosch, Rush End, 1998 – 2000
Other notables: Terrence Nunn
Personal Favorite: Terrence Nunn, Wide Receiver, 2004 – 2007
Comments: The second of the six numbers without a first team All-Conference selection, this came down to a two man race between Vanden Bosch and Nunn. I’ll be honest, I really wanted to put Nunn in this spot – he is the #2 guy in school history for receptions and receiving yards and was a very consistent (but not necessarily stand-out) contributor for four years. And yet, I couldn’t pull the trigger (apparently, I am still bitter over the 3rd Down fumble in the 2006 Texas game). Nunn gets my favorite nod for that consistency. While he was never the biggest star on the field, I respect that you could always pencil in his production week in and week out.
That leaves us with Vanden Bosch. Frankly, he is one of those players whose career left me wanting more. I always felt that a player who had his combination of brains (the twelfth Husker to be a two time academic All-American), brawn (three time lifter of the year finalist), and speed should have played at a higher level than what he did. I’m not at all surprised by his lengthy and successful NFL career. I just wish there would have been more during his time in Lincoln.
Best Player: Steve Manstedt, Defensive End, 1971 – 1973
Other notables: Dennis Richnafsky
Personal Favorite: T.J. O’Leary, Long Snapper, 2005 – 2008
Comments: Honestly, I don’t know too much about Manstedt’s career. He doesn’t have a Huskers.com page, and the best thing I found a this brief bio from this summer when he was elected to the Nebraska Football Hall of Fame: “(A) walk on from Wahoo. After playing a reserve role at defensive end on the 1971 national title team, he started on Bob Devaney’s last team in 1972 and Tom Osborne’s first in 1973. He made 145 career tackles and his 65-yard fumble return against Texas in the 1973 Cotton Bowl set up a field goal.”
Long snappers don’t get a lot of recognition either, and very little of the recognition they get is positive. For the most part, they only time you hear their name is when they commit a penalty or send the snap sailing over the punter’s head. That is why I liked O’Leary – he was a three year starter, but you rarely heard his name mentioned. Sometimes anonymity is a good thing.
Best Player: Willie Harper, Defensive End, 1970 – 1972
Other notables: Ben Cotton
Personal Favorite: Ben Cornelsen, Wingback, 1999 – 2002
Comments: A standout performer on some of Nebraska’s (and college football’s) greatest teams, Harper was a two time All-American and a three year starter. Twice he accumulated more than 100 yards in tackles for loss, including an amazing 9.2 yards lost per tackle as a sophomore on the 1970 championship team. As a senior in 1972, he didn’t rack up as gaudy of TFL numbers, but he did anchor a defense that shutout four teams in a row.
Ben Cornelsen was not a standout performer (9 catches for 124 yards in his career), and never started a game at Nebraska. While he did have some highlights (a 71 yard punt return for a touchdown against Kansas, averaged 11 yards on 15 carries), his career will be largely forgotten, another random kid who once wore a jersey.
Best Player: Jamie Williams, Tight End, 1980 – 1982
Other notables: Kenny Bell, Jeff Jamrog, Jim McFarland, Ray Phillips
Personal Favorite: Kenny Bell, Wide Receiver, 2010 – present
Comments: Jamie Williams was a great asset for Tom Osborne’s option offense. A big guy (6’5″, 230 pounds) he could be an effective blocker, but made his name catching passes. I don’t have any memories of Williams playing at Nebraska, but I can picture him releasing off of a block as the quarterback sold the option fake, then dropped back and hit Williams in stride down the middle of the field, 10 yards from the nearest defender. Williams averaged over 11 yards per catch and found the end zone seven times.
Let’s be honest with each other: the first thing we all knew about Kenny Bell was his glorious old-school Afro. Over the last few years, we’ve come to know him as a gifted receiver, a tenacious blocker, a team leader, and a prolific tweeter. I love all of those things (especially the blocking) and the fact that he is a huge supporter of his fellow student athletes. You can usually find Kenny at volleyball matches, gymnastics meets, basketball games, and probably all of the other 22 sports Nebraska offers. My hunch is that if I were doing this list in 2015, Kenny Bell might surpass Jamie Williams for the “best” label. Regardless, I think he’ll long be a favorite of mine.
I’d also like to mention another former owner of the #80 jersey. He only played at Nebraska for one season, and never caught a pass, rushed the ball, or made a tackle. Normally with that bio, most fans would have no idea who he was, especially where he played almost a decade ago. But I’m guessing that when I say the name “Santino Panico” you’ll know exactly who I’m talking about.
Here’s the thing – we remember Santino more for his pedestrian performance (raise your hand if you referred to him as “Santino Fair-Catcho”. I know I did) than his potential. I’m no recruitnik, but from his bio, (Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois, Army All-America Bowl, etc.) he sounded like a kid with some talent and potential.
I bring him up not to bash on Panico, or get in a cheap shot at the failures of the Callahan Regime. Instead I mention Santino Panico to remind us that sometimes Husker careers don’t turn out the way anybody expects – not the player, nor the coach who recruited him, or the fans who can recite his Rivals bio quicker than they recite their own kids’ birthdays. And while that’s disappointing for all parties, I’m guessing its hardest on the player who couldn’t find the success they felt they could have.
Sorry to end this one on a downer, but fear not: next up is the Seventies, with arguably the greatest collection of talent in the whole countdown.
Until next time…