Matt O'Hanlon's football career has as many plot-changing twists over the course of the past year than a bad soap opera.
A former walk-on who made the team on whim during an open tryout as a freshman, O'Hanlon not only worked his way up Nebraska's depth chart enough to get put on scholarship last September, he even made his way in to the starting spot at free safety.
But almost as quickly as he made his ascent, the Bellevue native quickly learned that nothing is guaranteed in the world of major college football.
O'Hanlon ended up being demoted from the starting lineup for Nebraska's final two regular season games and it's Gator Bowl showdown against Clemson. He still played in all three games, but losing the starting title made O'Hanlon realize that there is little room for error, no matter how you got there.
"It taught me that nothing is set in stone," O'Hanlon said. "You're always going to have to come out here and compete every day. Your spot is never guaranteed, so you're always going to have to work for it."
While some players would've taken the demotion as reason to pout or give up all together, O'Hanlon took it all in stride. In fact, he ended last season making one of the biggest plays in the Huskers' Gator Bowl victory.
With Nebraska holding a slim 26-21 lead in the fourth quarter, O'Hanlon came over the top of Clemson's C.J. Spiller to break up a pass in the end zone that would've easily been a touchdown. As a result, the Tigers ended up turning the ball over on downs, and the Huskers ran out the clock to cap off the year with a bowl game victory.
Defensive backs coach Marvin Sanders said the reason for O'Hanlon's demotion was mostly due to inconsistent play and occasional poor technique. Since the start of spring practice, however, Sanders said he's seen a completely different attitude and confidence from his 5-foot-11, 200-pound safety.
Going back to his play in the Gator Bowl, Sanders said that was the kind of play that often times can serve as a springboard for a player to take his game to the next level.
"It was kind of like Michael Jordan making the game-winning jump shot in the National Championship game," Sanders said. "You just feel like, yeah, I have the ability to do it. Matty making that last play I think gave him confidence that you know, I do have the ability to make those plays."
Though in his mind he was simply doing his job at the time, O'Hanlon said looking back on his Gator Bowl play has helped give him a boost in confidence he admittedly didn't have at times last season, especially towards the end of the year.
"Just the fact that I didn't get a whole lot of playing time those last two games, that my coaches had enough faith in me to put me in in a tight situation," O'Hanlon said. "I was just glad I could make a play. It does help my confidence."
O'Hanlon opened spring practice as the No. 1 free safety, and while he's had plenty of competition from players like senior Rickey Thenarse and junior Eric Hagg, that's a spot he doesn't plan on letting slip away any time soon.
"Losing my spot at the end of last season didn't help me confidence wise, but being able to make a play at the end of the game in the Gator Bowl and come in as No. 1 in the spring has helped a lot," O'Hanlon said. "It's helped me come into the spring knowing what I'm capable of an the type of plays I can make."
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