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November 10, 2009The day was March 25, 2006. Nebraska had just wrapped up their third spring practice and a group of Husker players were giving former NU quarterback Harrison Beck a hard time.
During a seven-on-seven drill in practice, the highly touted Beck completed just 2-of-11 passes and threw a pair of interceptions to a unknown walk-on player by the name of Matt O'Hanlon who came to Lincoln via South Dakota during NU's open tryout in the winter of 2005.
Little did Beck or anyone at the time know that O'Hanlon would go on to be a two year starter at safety for the Huskers and be named college football's national defensive player of the week after a school record tying three interception, 12 tackle performance in a 10-3 win over national powerhouse Oklahoma this past Saturday.
In fact nobody expected O'Hanlon to make it off the scout team defense and did. Nobody expected him to ever earn a scholarship and he did. Nobody expected him to beat out Rickey Thenarse at safety and he did. Nobody thought he'd be able to bounce back from the disappointing coverage bust he had at Virginia Tech in the fourth quarter and he did.
Nothing has come easy for 5-foot-11, 200 pound Bellevue native, but O'Hanlon has always found a way to come out on top.
When Bellevue East head coach Jerry Lovell flashes back to O'Hanlon's high school career, he recalls a game when he was an undersized sophomore playing quarterback for the Chieftains.
Lovell said former Millard West and Iowa State defensive tackle Nick Leaders laid a shot on O'Hanlon that most people wouldn't be able to get back up from. The difference with O'Hanlon is toughness. Lovell said he knows how to play through pain and he's shown that since he was a sophomore in high school.
"Leaders just clocked him," Lovell said in a previous interview. "Our coach in the booth said to me you better take a look at your sophomore quarterback. His eyes were bloodshot and watery because he was hit so hard. I asked Matt what play we should call next, and he said 'quarterback keeper'. I said, 'no that won't work,' then he said 'call a bootleg'. Finally we agreed to call a play to the running back. He's just that kind of competitor. He goes hard every play and doesn't show any quit."
O'Hanlon is a throwback player in an era of college football where guys like him don't exist anymore.
In a day in age where people are fascinated by star rankings and offer lists, O'Hanlon had none of that. His only offer out of Bellevue East was from Division II South Dakota, who he first signed with in high school. O'Hanlon left Vermillion though after two weeks and headed to Lincoln before classes started in the fall of 2004.
"Just going up there and knowing what Nebraska's tradition was like, it was just something I didn't necessarily want at the time," O'Hanlon said of his short stint at USD. "I wanted to come here and be a part of this tradition and be a part of games like Nebraska and Oklahoma."
O'Hanlon spent that first semester just as a regular student, but attended Nebraska's open walk-on tryout later that winter. The tryout was purely based on testing numbers, as it was set up like an NFL combine.
In a way O'Hanlon was like Vince Papale in the movie "Invincible," as 50 or 60 players tried out that day and he was the only one that made the team. However, instead of Dick Vermeil telling him he made the team like in the movie, he was informed by a little known administrative assistant that he could join the squad for spring practice that next month.
O'Hanlon redshirted the 2005 season and spent all three of his years with Kevin Cosgrove on the scout team defense and with the special teams units. It wasn't until Bo Pelini got to Lincoln when O'Hanlon got an actual chance to work with the base defense.
"When these coaches first got here I didn't know how to play defense," O'Hanlon said. "That first spring especially was a big learning year for me and how to play defense."
O'Hanlon would go onto excel under secondary coach Marvin Sanders and eventually beat out Thenarse right before last year's season opener against Western Michigan. O'Hanlon has gone on to start 18 of the last 22 games for the Huskers at free safety and he currently ranks fourth on the team with 48 tackles.
O'Hanlon said on Tuesday he feels like he can be an example to all the young players around the state who have aspirations of joining the team as a walk-on player like him.
"Just some of the guys who are from Nebraska who are younger or who haven't gotten a lot of playing time yet, they can look to me as kind of an example to set," O'Hanlon said. "I'm a guy who's from the same background as them, that knows about the tradition and everything and grew up as a Nebraska boy watching Nebraska football every Saturday. They can look to me and kind of be an inspiration for what they can do in the future."