October 15, 2008

Holt making most of unexpected opportunity

It took a few lucky breaks to open the door, but Matt Holt is taking every advantage of his unexpected opportunity.

Because of recent injuries within Nebraska's linebacker corps, the true freshman walk-on linebacker from Lee's Summit, Mo., made his first career start on Saturday against Texas Tech.

Holt got the start in place of junior Phillip Dillard, who missed the game with a MCL sprain in his left knee. In his first significant playing time, Holt finished second on the team with eight tackles, including seven solo tackles.

For Holt, who learned he would be starting last Tuesday, the opportunity came as a pleasant surprise considering he didn't even plan on playing Division I football a few months ago.

"I definitely didn't expect to be playing or even starting as a freshman," Holt said, "but I didn't feel nervous or anything because I played quite a bit at the end of the Missouri game, too, so I had at least some feel of it. It was faster, but it wasn't overwhelming or anything."

Holt originally committed to South Dakota State on full-ride scholarship, but on night before signing day, NU defensive coordinator Carl Pelini called him and asked him walk-on at Nebraska.

The next morning, Holt talked with Husker Carl Pelini, head coach Bo Pelini and linebackers coach Mike Ekeler for almost two hours. After the coaches agreed to Holt's lone stipulation of guaranteeing him a spot on NU's 105-man roster, he de-committed from SDSU to walk-on at Nebraska.

"I didn't want to think 'What if?'" Holt said. "I thought I could play at this level, so I decided to walk-on and give up the full ride."

The move was a homecoming of sorts for Holt. Not only are his parents both Lincoln natives, he also still has family in town and his dad even walked-on at Nebraska himself during his freshman year of college.

Holt's biggest connection to NU was through associate athletic director Bob Burton, a longtime friend of his father. During Holt's original recruiting process, Holt's father sent Burton film of his son's games and simply asked him to take a look. Burton then passed the film along to Carl Pelini, who in turn eventually made the call to bring Holt to Lincoln.

Coming out of Lee's Summit High, Holt rushed for 1,529 yards and 24 touchdowns last year as a senior to help lead his team to an undefeated season and a Missouri Class 4 state championship.

He got offers to walk-on at Kansas State and Kansas, who both said if they didn't get the players they originally wanted they would come to him as a back-up plan.

The biggest problem for Holt was deciding what position he wanted to play in college. Though he was his high school team's starting outside linebacker as a freshman, Holt eventually played running back only by the time he was a senior.

As it turned out, his start against the Red Raiders marked the first time he'd started a game on defense in more than two years.

Even so, Bo Pelini said he was impressed with Holt's performance in the most extensive playing time of his young career. Pelini said Holt's effort in practice made it an easy decision to throw him into the starting lineup against the then-No. 7 Red Raiders' potent offense.

In fact, Pelini trusted Holt so much he even gave him the responsibility of the making pre-snap defensive calls normally handled by Dillard.

"We had some guys go down, and Matt's the kind of guy that's very confident, he's athletic," Pelini said. "He's not the biggest guy I the world, but he's tough, he has a good understanding of the game. We just felt he was the right guy for us considering all the injuries we've had. He practiced well and he earned the right to get in there. To his credit, he played pretty well."

While Holt's rapid ascension up the Husker ranks has taken both him and his coaches by surprise, his play on the field has given NU a nice luxury of some depth while its veterans heal injuries.

"He kind of came on our radar late," Bo Pelini said. "Carl knew his head coach in high school. I'm glad he's here though, I think he's a pretty good football player."

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