O'Hanlon emerges as national player of the week

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
12:23
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Sometimes even a pinch can’t convince Nebraska safety Matt O’Hanlon how far he’s come in the past five seasons.

 
 AP Photo/Dave Weaver
 Matt O’Hanlon notched 12 tackles and three interceptions against Oklahoma.
After starting his career at South Dakota, making the Nebraska team as a walk-on and enduring three seasons as a scout team player, O’Hanlon’s stint with the Cornhuskers has been marked by perseverance and pitfalls.

That’s what makes his performance last week in the Cornhuskers’ gritty 10-3 triumph over Oklahoma so memorable. O’Hanlon had the game of his career, producing 12 tackles and tying the school record with three interceptions as he earned national defensive player of the week honors from the Football Writers Association of America.

That game has highlighted a senior season where he has rebounded from adversity to become a key producer in the Cornhuskers’ emerging defensive unit. Still, it makes the 24-year-old O’Hanlon wonder when his dream might end.

“I ask myself that every day,” O’Hanlon said. “It’s amazing I’ve come this far, but there’s still more to go.”

O’Hanlon is a throwback player to Nebraska’s storied tradition as a haven for walk-on players. Like many young Nebraska boys, he grew up idolizing the Cornhuskers and hoping for the day he could play at Memorial Stadium.

That call didn't come after a high school career in the Omaha suburb of Bellevue, where he played running back and quarterback and was a state championship power-lifter. He instead chose Division II South Dakota, which was the only school to offer him a scholarship.

But after a stint of only a few weeks with the Coyotes program, O'Hanlon decided he had to come back home and play with the Cornhuskers.

“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. "I wanted to come to Nebraska and be a part of this tradition and be a part of games like Nebraska and Oklahoma."

After a semester at Nebraska outside the program, O’Hanlon responded to the call of an open tryout for the team organized by former coach Bill Callahan. His numbers in a combine-like workout were strong enough to get him invited back for spring practice -- the only player among the 60 or so attendees to get a call back.

From there, O'Hanlon spent three years in the program patiently awaiting his chance to play.

That opportunity finally materialized with the arrival of Bo Pelini as the Cornhuskers’ coach.

Pelini and his brother, Carl, the Cornhuskers’ defensive coordinator, liked O’Hanlon’s spirit and hitting abilities. But they knew it would be a long transformation in getting him into a trusted defensive player.

“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 I learned to play defense."

His development was strong enough to earn him the starting job at the beginning of last season, making starts in the first nine games. He shared the job with Ricky Thenarse the rest of the year, but punctuated it with a key third-down pass deflection in the Gator Bowl that helped seal that victory over Clemson.

And because he had never attended a class at South Dakota in 2004, the NCAA granted him an additional season of eligibility this year.

Like earlier in his career, his senior season has been marked by perseverance. His breakdown in deep passing coverage allowed a long late pass that helped set up Virginia Tech’s game-winning touchdown in the final two minutes.

“That was the low point of my career,” O’Hanlon said. “It was hard to not have that play replaying in my head every day. But to have a good game like I did last week helps out.

“Hopefully, it doesn’t erase the memory but substitutes it with something else.”

The Cornhuskers have shown a similar durability. After losing back-to-back home games to Texas Tech and Iowa State, Nebraska has rebounded to win its last two games over Baylor and Oklahoma. That’s placed the Cornhuskers in the driver’s seat for the North Division title if they can win out their remaining three games.

If they do, a big reason will be O’Hanlon, who is nicknamed “Old Hanlon” by his younger teammates.

“You hear about guys with something to prove," Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick said. "Matty is that guy. I couldn’t be prouder of what he’s done."

O’Hanlon may never play football again after the completion of this season. But he’s content with what he’s accomplished as his plans on a special-education teacher in his hometown are moving forward. His wife, Amy, is a registered nurse and their lives will be content whether he plays football again or not.

“To have gone through all the things I’ve gone through has been a roller-coaster ride for sure,” O’Hanlon said. “But it makes it even more worthwhile.”

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