NU Junior Varsity Team Gave Huskers an Advantage
By Shane G. Gilster
The success of the Husker football program under Tom Osborne was due to many factors, but one of the major contributors was the junior varsity team.
“It was an advantage in terms of the development of players; for freshmen to come in and learn their position and system without being on the scout team,” said Shane Thorell, who was the NU JV head coach from 1987 to 1989. “They developed into better players and gained more confidence playing on the jayvee team. It was just a great system back then.”
The NU freshman-junior varsity team compiled a 120-17-1 record with 21 undefeated and untied seasons going back to 1956. But the JV team legacy stretches back even further. Nebraska has had a junior varsity, “B” or freshman team as far back as 1912.
While other schools eliminated JV programs because of expense or lack of commitment, Nebraska continued its program through 1990, playing a five-game schedule, the maximum allowed by the NCAA. Nebraska was the last Division I-A school to have a JV team other than the military academies – Army, Navy and Air Force.
NU used to play other Big Eight teams. The last season the Huskers played a conference JV team was 1985, a 56-0 victory over Iowa State.
“When I played on the jayvee team under Frank Solich, we played against Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Iowa State,” Thorell said. “Those teams discontinued their jayvee programs because they didn’t have the walk-on program like Nebraska did. Proposition 48 was coming into play so a lot of kids who didn’t qualify academically started going to junior colleges. We then started to play teams like Ellsworth, Waldorf, Snow and Coffeyville.”
Those colleges used Nebraska as a recruiting tool. The chance to play the Huskers at Memorial Stadium was attractive for their players. The Coffeyville teams especially had players who went on to play Division I football. Coffeyville blew out the Huskers in 1987, 49-14.
That was Thorell’s first season as head coach, and to be fair, he didn’t have the top freshmen on the JV team that finished the season 2-3.
Osborne started to play or redshirt his top recruits. That meant quarterback Mickey Joseph, running back Leodis Flowers and wingback Nate Turner all redshirted while safety Reggie Cooper, cornerback Tahaun Lewis and linebacker Mike Croel moved up to the varsity.
Scholarship recruit George Achola was one who didn’t redshirt in 1987 and played on the JV team until getting called up for one game with the varsity. Achola was a running back from Omaha Creighton Prep and was the JV leading rusher with more than 500 yards and six touchdowns.
“I knew at some point I was going to redshirt but wanted to play on the freshman team because it was an opportunity to help with the transition from high school to college,” Achola said. “Playing on the jayvee team eased you into that because you got to play against good competition with teams that had players that were older than you. When you played Coffeyville, you were in a sense playing against a low-level Division I team, and against Air Force you were playing a varsity team because they would pull down a bunch of their varsity players.”
Nebraska’s JV team was almost entirely composed of freshmen – scholarship recruits and around 40 to 50 walk-ons. They would practice separately from the varsity and had six graduate assistant coaches. In a sense, it was like another Division I football team in the state of Nebraska.
The team played on Fridays at 1 p.m. Games were not televised, but would draw a couple thousand fans in the stands along with the Husker varsity coaching staff.
“At that time the football offices were in the South Stadium so the coaches would come out and sit in the South Stadium stands,” Thorell said. “One time coach Osborne came to the sideline after seeing the way the other team’s defense was playing. He came up to me and said, ‘Run the 32-option,’ so he paid attention to what we were doing.”
Thorell’s best season was 1988 when his JV team went 5-0. It was quarterbacked by freshman Mike Grant who compiled 912 total yards of offense, the second highest stat in freshman/jayvee history, trailing only Turner Gill’s record of 979 yards in 1980. Grant rushed for seven touchdowns and passed for 11 TDs as NU averaged 53.4 points per game.
The JV team gave hardcore fans a chance to catch glimpses of the next rising Husker star – or not.
“There were always guys that came in and didn’t make an impact on the varsity. Some of the guys who were highly recruited didn’t pan out later because they had already peaked,” Thorell said. “But coach Osborne recruited a lot of walk-ons. So, if you get around 40 walk-ons and play them on the jayvee team, you are going to find some diamonds in the rough. The beauty of the jayvee program was those guys could show what they could do.”
Under Thorell, walk-ons like Tom Haase, Dan Pleasant, John Parrella, Lance Gray and Matt Penland starred on the JV squad and went on to make meaningful contributions on varsity. It also provided scholarship guys who weren’t highly rated a springboard to future greatness.
“You also are going to get some of the scholarship guys who aren’t redshirting or ready to play varsity a chance to get some reps in game action,” Thorell said. “Then they redshirt the next year and get more reps in practices on the scout team.”
Cory Schlesinger was an example. He found a home at fullback on the last JV team that played a five-game schedule in 1990 and then redshirted in 1991, playing on the scout team. He later became one of NU’s all-time greats at that position.
“When I came in, I was like the 11th fullback on the depth chart, so this gave me the opportunity to play as a freshman,” said Schlesinger who was second on the team in rushing (229 yards). “My running backs coach was Turner Gill and I got to see where I stacked up against other freshmen. There was nothing better than having that freshman team, I’m glad I got to play on it. We were playing smaller colleges but you get a chance to play a game instead of practice stuff and also learn the system at a slower pace.”
But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. With a reduction in coaching staff sizes that began in August of 1992, Nebraska’s JV program ended after the 1990 season. Division I staffs were allowed 13 on-field coaches instead of 16, requiring the elimination of one full-time assistant coach, one non-salaried part-time assistant and one graduate assistant.
“We’ll be limited to 13 and possibly 12 on-field coaches by then (August 1992) and we think we stretch it to run a varsity and junior varsity program with 16 on-field coaches now,” said NU head coach Tom Osborne in 1991, when he announced the decision to discontinue the JV program.
“Most coaches, including me, always thought the freshman team was the healthiest way to get freshmen into football,” he said. “Even though we still had a year that we could play before the new restrictions, we figured we better start gearing down now.”
Thorell, a financial adviser for Edward Jones in Aurora, Nebraska, for the past 27 years, was a little surprised he was contacted to talk about the Husker JV program. He said it has been 10 years or more since he was interviewed about it.
He was a player and coach at Nebraska from 1981 to 1991. After his final head coaching gig with the JV team, he coached the varsity cornerbacks for two years. He was then defensive coordinator at South Dakota State in 1992 and 1993.
The JV team went 4-1 under Bill Weber in 1990, the final full-schedule season. The loss was to the Air Force jayvees.
The JV team was briefly resurrected in October of 1993 as a favor from Osborne to Air Force head coach Fisher DeBerry. Graduate assistants Gerry Gdowski and Bill Busch coached the Nebraska jayvees as the Huskers with quarterback Matt Turman defeated the Falcons 49-20 in Lincoln. The teams were scheduled for a rematch in Colorado Springs later in the year, but bad weather canceled it.
Thus, the Husker JV program officially ended. It was the end of an era, but one that shouldn’t be forgotten. It gave Nebraska an advantage and contributed to its winning tradition.