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North Bend Eagle

 

 

The last hurrah

On the eve of his final college football game, Jake Wesch reflects on his Husker career and looks to the future

by Nathan Arneal
published 12/31/08

Jake Wesch and Bo Pelini
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini greets Jake Wesch during senior day ceremonies before the Colorado game.

It seems like a short time ago when Jake Wesch followed the trail blazed by so many small-town dreamers before him. In 2004 he left the small pond of North Bend to see if he could swim in the Big Red Sea of Nebraska football.

Five years later, it is the eve of his final college football game as he and his teammates prepare for the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida.
Days after graduating from the University of Nebraska with a communications degree, the former Tiger star sat down with the North Bend Eagle to reflect on his career, his hand in one of the biggest kicks in Husker history, his future, and more.

North Bend Eagle: You’ve had feature stories written about you in the Omaha World-Herald, the Lincoln Journal-Star, the North Bend Eagle and the Fremont Tribune. Are you the most publicized back-up kicker in Husker history?
Jake Wesch: (laughing) Well, I guess that’s a tribute to the guys around me. Obviously Alex (Henery) had gotten me some publicity because I held his big kick (against Colorado). But I don’t know. I’ve been fortunate to have some nice write ups and some people have said a lot of nice things.

Jake Wesch
Jake Wesch poses in front of a larger-than-life-size portrait of himself displayed on the Poppe Contstruction building in North Bend. The painting was done by NBC art teacher Dan Wright in October.

NBE: Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if you had gone to a smaller school and played quarterback or safety?
JW: Yes. I did a lot when I first got to Nebraska just because I didn’t exactly know what my role was. I came from (North Bend Central) playing quarterback and free safety and different spots on defense, and also kicking and punting, so I had the ball in my hands quite a bit. Then I get down to Nebraska where I just kicked. At the time it didn’t really seem like football. It was just go to the side line and kind of kick cups for a while. So it did cross my mind that I could be at a Wayne State or somewhere like that playing the quarterback position. I talked to my dad about it a lot, but now that it’s all said and done, the stuff I’ve done at Nebraska has exceeded my expectations. The experience I’ve had at Nebraska has been incredible and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

NBE: What was it like coming out of that tunnel in front of 80,000 screaming fans for the first time?
JW: It’s indescribable. I remember being the kid in the stands getting goose bumps. I had the same (goose bumps) when I came out for the first time. You have fans on both sides of you grabbing you and screaming and stuff like that. Then you have your buddies all around you going crazy. It was really the climax of my freshman year. It was an incredible feeling.

NBE: How about the last time you came out the tunnel during the Colorado game, by yourself, on senior day?
JW: It was something I didn’t want to think about too much because it was my last time. But I think the fashion we came out, with the seniors all coming out together, it was really a memorable experience. It’s hard not to look back where you’re walking through. Everything that’s happened in the last four or five years all came down to this last walk. It’s an emotional experience, but at the same time you get to leave the field the same way you started your career, and that’s with your senior class, your best friends.

NBE: Then you played the game, and talk about memorable. Alex Henery hits a 57-yard game-winning field goal that you held for. Tell me about that.
JW: Me and Alex and (long snapper) T.J. (O’Leary) roam the sidelines together when the offense has the ball so we’re always ready. We had the mind set that we were going to kick the field goal because Roy (Helu) just had a good run and it was going to be about a 40-yard field goal. So we were mentally ready, but then Joe (Ganz) got sacked. The coaches were going back and forth and they finally asked Alex “Can you make this?” Alex is the type of guy who’s just real calm and he just shrugged his shoulders and was like “Yeah” in a real nonchalant way.

So we go out there and there was a TV timeout and it seemed like an eternity. As we were standing out there I told (Henery) he was going to be a hero. I had seen him hit 64-yarders indoors, so I knew he had the leg. As I got down on my knee getting ready to kick it, I remember looking up at the field goal post and thinking “Geez, that’s a long way out there,” but I had all the confidence in Alex.

It was a good snap by T.J. I can usually tell from the sound of the kick whether it’s a good hit or not, and it sounded really good. When the ball was in the air it started on the outside, to the right of the goal post, but it came back in, and I think my heart skipped a few beats while it was up in the air. As it started creeping more and more toward the field goal post I think that’s when a lot of the guys on the field goal team knew it had a legitimate chance of going in. From that angle it looked like it was a matter of inches. I went to go celebrate with (Henery) right away, but I think he knew right away when he hit it that it was a good kick because he was already down the field with T.J. I always give T.J. a hard time for being the first one down there because it was his responsibility to block, so I don’t know how he got down there so fast. But then I met T.J. and Alex down by the end zone, and I guess the rest is history.

NBE: Have you ever heard that kind of noise in Memorial Stadium?
JW: That’s as loud as I’ve ever heard it. Then Suh’s interception (return for a touchdown) was just icing on the cake. I definitely couldn’t have scripted a better ending for my last game in Memorial Stadium. It almost seemed like the place was shaking. I joke with Alex that one kick took us from El Paso (and the Sun Bowl) to Jacksonville (and the Gator Bowl).

NBE: Just the fact that you are a Husker player makes you a celebrity in this state. What’s it been like dealing with that?
JW: No matter what, you’re always representing the University of Nebraska, no matter if you’re playing or just going out to eat with some friends. The guys I usually hang around with are guys on the team. While I’m not as recognizable, a lot times they are just because of their body size and all that. I can sneak past a crowd most of the time.
That’s also why I like to go out to schools and do a lot of work in the community, because I and do a lot of work in the community, because I remember the impact (former players) made on me, even if it’s just shaking a hand. That would have changed my whole day as a little kid. Just not forgetting that, staying humble, and remembering where you came from and how you got there. I try to do that as much as I can.

NBE: Did anything surprise you about being a Division I athlete once you got to Nebraska?
JW: Just the sheer time commitment. Of course I knew coming in that we would go the majority of the year, but you don’t realize the strain that has on your body. I think we get about a total of about one month off during the year. The first year was a definitely an adjustment period with football and school and then somewhat of a social life. Just to manage all that was a task in itself. By my sophomore or junior year it became a way of life. It was all I knew. When we did have a couple of days off I didn’t know what to do with my time because I was so used to the routine of school, football, study.

The other side of it that I didn’t expect was, I don’t want to say the politics side of it, but the fact that there’s always going to be someone else coming in. I wasn’t too heralded coming in, but there’s always people that are told certain things or they’re talked up to be this special athlete, but then they realize when they get (to college), it’s pure competition the whole time.

NBE: Your time at Nebraska coincided with one of the more rocky periods in the history of Husker football with the coaching change. What was it like going though that experience?
JW: A lot of people ask me what type of person Bill Callahan was or what type of coaches they were. I’ll be the first person to say that coach Callahan was a brilliant football coach. But at the same time, that’s all I knew. I came from high school, they were my coaches, so when I was asked if they were good coaches, I’d say absolutely they were good coaches.

Now, with Pelini, it’s a whole new perspective. You get a sense of what it was like back in the ‘90s, with the Nebraska football we grew up watching. It helps having Coach Osborne as athletic director, but the way Pelini carries himself, his character, and as personable as he is, really makes it so much easier. You realize he’s the right fit for it. I’d give anything to have another five years with him. It’s just been so much fun this last year, working with Pelini and seeing the strides we’ve made as a team. You can actually see guys changing for the better. That’s pretty encouraging to see.

NBE: What do you think the future holds for the Nebraska football program?
JW: I think the sky’s the limit. I think we’ve exceeded a lot of expectations this year. I think people knew Pelini was going to come in as a good defensive coach, but at the same time it was still a coaching change and players still had to learn a new system. We knew we could either make excuses and talk about it, or we could get after it right away. Everything we’ve done since (Pelini’s) been here has been done with a purpose, and I think that has a direct correlation with our success on the field.

NBE: For your career, you’re 2-for-2 passing with a touchdown. Do you ever tease Joe Ganz about having a better quarterback rating than him?
JW: I used to. I remember when I threw my first touchdown pass (against Kansas State in 2006) he was like “Geez, we even have kickers throwing more touchdown passes than me.” Yeah, I let him hear it, but of course he’ll let me hear it now that the toss over my head (during a fake field goal against Colorado this year) went for a touchdown (for Colorado), but that actually counted as a fumble. But if he’s getting cocky, I’ll let him hear it sometimes.

NBE: What does the future hold for you?
JW: It’s a little uncertain right now. I’m gong to work out this winter until our pro day. If something happens (with pro football), that’d be great, but I also realize that the chances of that are pretty slim. I’ve had a couple of internships in the athletic department on the development and communications side. That’s something I’d like to continue to do.
I’ve done some work with rejuvenating the Husker Power Club, which used to be the most prominent booster club but kind of fell off. This last year I started a kids club called “Husker JV Kids Club.” It’s a way for kids to stay interactive with what the football team is doing. It’s going real well. We have over 800 kids signed up for it now. But staying involved in athletics though the administrative side is something I’m interested in doing.

NBE: If you got an invite to a pro camp is that something you’d explore?
JW: Yes. It’s a real rarity to get drafted as a punter and kicker. There’s just not many positions available, so any opportunity is a good opportunity, even if it’s just trying out for a team because that’s something that a lot of punter/kickers don’t get to do.

NBE: If scouts look at a couple of guys that are equal as far as kicking, do you think a guy like you who has a lot of experience holding would be an advantage?
JW: That’s something some of the Nebraska coaches have actually talked to me about. They thought I should give the next level a try because of my versatility. That’s something that got Sam Koch, our former punter, drafted. When he worked out for the Ravens he did good punting, but what separated him from others was his ability to kick off plus he also held. I can do all three of those things too, so I think that separates me from a lot of other people in the country.

NBE: Would you consider anything less than the NFL? Say arena football or NFL Europe?
JW: Yeah. I’d have to consider the circumstances and see what was offered. Arena leagues, depending on the level, can be good. There’s also Canada, Europe or whatever else is out there. I need to at least look into all of them.

NBE: What’s going through your mind as you approach your final college game in the Gator Bowl?
JW: It’s very similar to playing my last game in Memorial Stadium. It’s something you really don’t look forward too. Of course, you look forward to the game itself, but the end result of the game is that you’re done for your college career.

It’s going to be a game of emotion, but you can’t let those emotions dictate the way you play. It’d be fitting if we won and leave on a high note. I looked more at my last game in Memorial Stadium (against Colorado) as being my last game, rather than the Gator Bowl. It’s a little uncharacteristic (for Nebraska), I guess, to only make it to three bowl games in five years, but I guess I’m fortunate to say that I was a part of what hopefully is the start of something pretty special.

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