Home of the longest consecutive sellout streak in college football history, Nebraska fans have continued to support their football team in Lincoln, Nebraska, even when the road has been rocky.
The passion from fans toward the program is starting to pay dividends as in-state players are increasingly staying close to home.
“Everybody in Nebraska is die-hard fans, and that’s something I’ve paid attention to growing up,” said AJ Collins Jr., a preferred walk-on defensive back for Nebraska football’s 2021 recruiting class.“When you’re going to school and people you’ve never talked to before are wearing that “N” on their chest, they might not know I just committed or anything, but it still feels good that you have a lot of people in your corner.”
The football team’s leader, Coach Scott Frost, has said several times over his three-year tenure that he wants to expand the amount of local athletes that come to his program. It appears he has been hard at work doing just that.
Nebraska has seven scholarship football players committed to the 2021 class who are either from Nebraska or live within 20 miles of the state’s border. Frost had eight of the in-state area scholarship players in his three previous classes. The 2021 class, led by Thomas Fidone of Council Bluffs, Iowa, the second-ranked tight end in the country, is the most local scholarship players committed to a class in some time. But the scholarship players aren’t the only ones staying local to play for the Huskers, as Nebraska already has commitments from five in-state walk-ons in the 2021 class, too.
Frost himself is a Nebraska native, growing up in Wood River, Nebraska, near the center of the state.
Heinrich Haarberg, who hails from Kearney, a 20-minute drive from Wood River, is the first in-state scholarship quarterback to commit to Nebraska since Frost himself. Frost, Haarberg said, played the biggest hand in getting the lengthy 6-foot-5-inch quarterback to stay in-state.
“Him being from Wood River, he kind of understands what it’s like to come from here and be a quarterback,” Haarberg said.
Most of the 2021 class announced their commitment on Twitter with the hashtag #homegrown. Teddy Prochazka of Elkhorn South started the homegrown movement when he became the first 2021 player to commit in September 2019. While there is nothing wrong with having your top players from out of state, Haarberg said, playing for Nebraska usually means a little more to the guys from Nebraska.
“There’s not a lot of guys that get to represent their state like we do, so going out and thinking about how many people are watching that you’ve grown up around, every person that you’ve passed by in Walmart is probably watching you right now,” he said. “You want to represent and show that Nebraska can produce elite level players.”
James Carnie — a 2021 tight end commit from Roca, Nebraska, who played at Norris High School — said Frost has done a great job of keeping in-state players home this year, which Carnie believes is essential for the development of the program.
“I mean you look at Garrett Nelson, and that kid is from Scottsbluff,” he said. “It’s on the other side of the state, and his passion for the sport of football and for Nebraska football is insane. It just means a lot more to us.”
Nebraska has taken three local tight ends in the 2021 class: Fidone, Carnie and AJ Rollins from Creighton Prep in Omaha. While most of the time schools don’t take three tight ends in a class, Carnie said it could help with the perception about Nebraska’s tight ends compared to nearby schools like Iowa, which is known for producing NFL caliber tight ends — George Kittle, Dallas Clark, TJ Hockenson and Noah Fant, who were both in the 2016 recruiting class.
“Tight end U, as they say, but now with me, Thomas and AJ, I don’t know about that,” Carnie said.
Some would say that playing for your home state university means more pressure, but Kobe Bretz, a 2021 defensive back commit from Omaha Westside, believes it’s the opposite.
“I don’t really think it’s a lot of pressure just because a lot of the fans are really appreciating that we grew up being Husker fans, and now we’re going to the school we’ve always wanted to,” he said. “I feel like they’ll just be proud of us because we’re trying to keep that brotherhood going.”
Another reason Nebraska is different from other Division I universities is the team’s bond and camaraderie Haarberg said. From having fishing and dunking competitions over the summer to spending a night out on the town in the Capitol City, Haarberg and the other 2021 commits don’t try to pressure another player into committing but rather show them what their life would be like if they did.
“It’s not a fake relationship where you compliment them all the time and tell them how good they are and how they should come to Nebraska,” Haarberg said. “It’s just building that relationship like, ‘Come hang out with us for the next four years and play with us.’”
Carnie has been to every home Nebraska football game since he was 3 years old,which stems from his grandpa’s love of the Huskers. His grandpa went to every home football game from the 1950s until he passed away four years ago.
“I remember being little and sitting in the stands with him saying, ‘I want to play out there’” Carnie said. “I was hoping he could watch me and unfortunately he passed away, but I know he’s watching down on me now, and I know he’s excited.”
Carnie had plenty of options to play football elsewhere with 24 Division I offers, but with his passion for Huskers football, and Nebraska being his “dream school,” he said it would have been hard to turn Frost and company down.
Unlike Carnie, Haarberg spent the majority of his life growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, and wasn’t always set on coming to play for the Huskers either, even though his dad, Rod Haarberg, was a fullback for the Huskers in the 90s.
“My dad didn’t force the Huskers on me,” Haarberg said. “We would watch them sometimes, but he’s taken me to 32 different stadiums growing up, so I’ve seen a lot of the Power 5 programs.”
Haarberg has also fielded scholarship offers from several of them, too. Vanderbilt and Boston College offered scholarships. He took a visit to Northwestern. Auburn called after Nebraska had already offered him. So, too, did Clemson, the team in and out of National Championship games the last five years.
“A lot of schools came in after they offered that were very tempting,” he said. “I could have chosen to stay in it for a little while longer and seen if they offered, but in the end, I knew where I wanted to go. I really just had my mind set that Nebraska was the spot for me.”
While Collins Jr. didn’t receive a scholarship offer from Nebraska, one of his best friends did: AJ Rollins, the tight end and fellow Creighton Prep Bluejay. For Collins Jr., knowing his longtime friend chose Nebraska was all he needed to hear. Nebraska was the only school in mind.
“Once I got the offer from Nebraska, I wanted to keep that bond and connection with him as a brother, so I might as well,” Collins Jr. said. “It’s right down the road. I’ve had a lot of coaches that I’ve played under that played for Nebraska, so it was kind of a no-brainer to join the brotherhood.
There hasn’t been a difference from being a walk-on compared to a scholarship player yet, Collins Jr. said, because he grew up playing with Bretz and Fidone on a 7-on-7 team, so the team just feels like it normally would growing up.
Another reason playing at Nebraska has its advantages over competitors is being close to home, Collins Jr. said.
“One thing I forgot to mention is making my family happy,” Collins said. “That means a lot to me because if my family wanted to come to the game, they could just shoot 45 minutes down the road and seeing the smile on their faces means a lot to me.”
For many in-state players like Carnie, playing football at Nebraska fulfills a lifelong dream.
“I’m just super blessed to be in this position,” he said. “You think about how many kids play flag football across the state, and how many kids grow up dreaming of being a Husker. I’m still blown away from it. I’ve been committed for two or three weeks, and it still makes the hair on my arm stand up all the time.”