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Coaching change, turbulence shapes a senior class aiming for one more high note

November 25, 2017

Chris Weber faced an early-career reckoning.

Tyler Hoppes thought he might be lost in the shuffle completely.

De’Mornay Pierson-El had no idea what to expect.

Weber recorded six tackles in 2014 as a redshirt freshman. Hoppes was finishing up a redshirt season after transferring back to his hometown.

Pierson-El had emerged as an electrifying punt-return man over the course of his true freshman season and also caught 23 passes for 321 yards and four touchdowns. Maybe his most memorable moment: a 41-yard return to set up a touchdown and then 80-yard return touchdown against Iowa to set the stage for a 37-34 overtime win in Iowa City that lifted the Huskers to 9-3.

Less than 48 hours later, Bo Pelini was fired.

“I just remember thinking, at a place like this, you control your own destiny,” Weber said this week. “You can go as far as you want to go here. With the resources that we have, you control it. You’ve got to put the work in, you’ve got to want it.”

Many NU players graduated that year and some transferred. Some recruits decommitted. Wide receiver Stanley Morgan, then a four-star prospect in New Orleans, reopened his recruitment before ultimately coming back into the fold.

Perhaps the hardest decision rested with the youngest players already in the program. Transfer out and reset with most of your career still ahead of you? Or stick it out with a new coaching staff and start from scratch here?

Fight or flight?

Pierson-El, Hoppes, Weber and 18 other seniors who will be honored Friday afternoon at Memorial Stadium chose to fight, and head coach Mike Riley is forever grateful.

“I’ve always felt fortunate to have been with guys, no matter how long it was — one year, two years, three years, four years, five years — it always makes me feel good about what we do,” Riley said. “... Frankly, we can’t even hold it together with a year like we’ve had without solid, good seniors that kind of just keep pushing everything forward. We owe these guys a lot.”

This class is used to pushing through difficulty.

Pierson-El missed most of his sophomore year with a knee injury. Weber fought to get on the field. Hoppes didn’t crack the lineup until this fall. Neither did Connor Ketter. Joshua Kalu switched positions. Chris Jones tore his meniscus. Marcus Newby had 18 tackles as a junior. David Knevel battled injuries often and missed nine-plus games this year. Kieron Williams led the team in interceptions a year ago and is a reserve now.

Drew Brown’s been about as steady a force as the class has. Luke McNitt has been a force for two seasons.

The lesson: The path to a four- or five-year college football career is never easy.

It hasn’t been much smoother on the field, either. Since the day Pelini was fired, Nebraska has won 19 games and lost 19.

As this season has unfolded and goals of a Big Ten title, then of second place in the West division, then of bowl eligibility have gone unfulfilled, this class has taken on one of the tougher jobs a group of seniors can: Help prepare younger guys for future success while handling the frustration of a tough final season.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” Weber said of the seniors. “A coaching change, Sam (Foltz)’s death, but we’ve stayed together, we’ve bonded, it hasn’t changed how guys have worked each week. That just speaks to the guys that we have, the senior class that we have. I’m proud to know them, I’m proud to play with them.”

Part of the experience players like Hoppes can impart on the likes of Jack Stoll and Austin Allen — or Pierson-El to JD Spielman and Tyjon Lindsey and Javeon McQuitty, or Weber to Avery Roberts and Collin Miller and Ben Stille — is what this offseason will be like.

Friday may well be Riley’s last full day on the job. The returning Huskers will likely be faced with those team-wide text messages, introductory meetings, more introductory meetings, new playbooks, new practice schedules, new mottos, new everything.

It’s not easy.

“I kind of got lost in the shuffle,” recalled Hoppes, who played one year at Wayne State before transferring to Nebraska. “Me and McNitt actually came in at the same time. I played defensive end under Bo’s staff and (Riley) didn’t recruit me, so it was kind of like, they’ve got their own guys. You just try to keep grinding away. You might get lost, but you just work your way up and the coaches will notice.”

Said Pierson-El, “Of course it takes time. A new coach comes in and everybody just falls in love with him? No. You have to build chemistry.”

Time and chemistry forged life-long relationships, if not the number of wins everybody wanted. And now, another group that has seen its fair share of attrition and turbulence and also has had some high-points along the way, has 60 minutes left in Memorial Stadium.

“Our class together as a whole has kind of been through a lot,” Pierson-El said. “We kind of came in, I think our class was a bit of a rebel class. If you can remember, a lot of people that were in that class that actually left. Our class was a lot of knuckleheads.”

The rebels are all grown up now. There’s only one way they want to go out: Beat Iowa.