During the 1990 prep football season, Tony Veland had his mind set on being a quarterback in college...or at least trying it, before thinking about switching to another position.
A three-year starter at Omaha Benson HS, Veland played safety as a sophomore, and quarterback and cornerback as a junior and senior. He earned second-team All–Metro and Super-State honors in his final year.
“At our high school, he didn’t even scratch the surface of his abilities. When he is able to focus his abilities on one position, he will be tremendous,” Veland’s high school coach Lonnie Tapp said back in 1991.
Veland wasn’t highly recruited, but recruiting analyst Max Emfinger ranked him as the 20th best player in the Midlands region, regardless of position.
Nebraska and Iowa State were the two schools that officially offered Veland, but he received recruiting letters from most everyone in the Big 8, along with Stanford and some Ivy League schools.
“Everyone recruited me as an athlete. I played quarterback in high school and that is where I excelled at,” Veland said. “I knew I was a decent enough athlete to play defensive back, but I just had in my mind that I wanted the challenge to play quarterback, the position that I loved, at a higher level. I would have started out at quarterback no matter what school I went to.”
Veland said he got noticed through a football camp that high schools went to at Nebraska. NU assistant coaches Dan Young and Tony Samuel recruited him, and later head coach Tom Osborne came down to watch one of his basketball games during his senior year, then came to his house to visit with Veland and his mom.
“I was sold when that happened,” Veland said of the Osborne visit. “I wasn’t heavily recruited by Nebraska, but they liked what they saw.”
Even though Osborne and NU saw Veland as more of an athlete who could potentially fit in at a handful of positions, Veland felt he was a good fit at quarterback. He grew up admiring former Husker quarterback greats Turner Gill and Steve Taylor.
“I was an option guy…I was a lot better runner than a passer, so I felt I could fit in that system, Veland said. “I knew Nebraska was a place I could grow, and growing up as a kid I wanted to be in the spotlight and perform at a place like Nebraska, who had a high-powered offense where the running back and quarterback were the big duo.”
But Nebraska signed two other guys in the ‘91 class who were slated to play quarterback.
“I knew Nebraska signed two other quarterbacks (Clester Johnson and Brook Berringer) but they didn’t make me shy away because of competition,” he said.
Veland, the first scholarship football player from Benson to play at Nebraska, seemed destined to be a quarterback there. He came to Nebraska fresh off an MVP performance in the 1991 Shrine Bowl.
They (NU coaches) asked me what I wanted to play, and I said I wanted to start out at quarterback, so they decided to let me play there. Since I performed pretty well in the Shrine Bowl, they were more willing for me to do my thing and prove myself. I think I did decently well that first year as a redshirt,” he said.
That he did…in fact, Veland entered the spring of 1992 battling for the No. 1 position at quarterback, as the previous year’s starter (Keithen McCant) had graduated.
Veland was competing against Mike Grant and fellow classmates Johnson and Berringer. After spring football ended, Grant was No. 1 and No. 2 was between Veland and Berringer.
But then his quarterback dreams started to fade when he broke his collarbone during the last play in the last scrimmage before the Huskers’ first game.
“If I wouldn’t have gotten hurt, I would have had a good shot at being the starting quarterback, or at least would have been the No. 2 guy,” Veland said.
With Veland out, Grant started the first half of the year then gave way to true freshman Tommie Frazier for the rest of the season. Veland was able to come back and participate in one of the last games of the year at quarterback.
In 1993, Frazier was hands down the starter, and Veland and Berringer were co-number 2s. But after tearing his patellar tendon in his knee early in the season, Veland missed the rest of the year.
“So I switched to defensive back after approaching the coaches,” Veland said. “I felt like I had so many injuries and thought if I could hit people instead of getting hit, that maybe I wouldn’t get hurt as much. I knew they (NU coaches) wanted me to play defense in the beginning, so I thought maybe that would get me on the field more and help me stay healthy.”
But what position in the defensive backfield?
“I could have played cornerback and I played that position as a senior in high school, but that position was sewed up and so I thought I would be more comfortable and better at roaming in the defensive backfield than playing strictly man-to-man,” Veland said.
That meant he was going to be a safety for the rest of his career at Nebraska. Now it was just a matter of how quickly he could pick up the position and get onto the field to contribute.
“Having been a quarterback, you learn to read the defenses and analyze the game a little quicker than some of the other players at my position,” Veland explained. “So from a schematics standpoint, it didn’t take very long, but the actual footwork and movements that a defensive back has to have did.”
Finally healthy as a junior in 1994, Veland took over for the injured Mike Minter and started the final 10 games of the Huskers’ national championship season.
Then, as a starter in his senior season, he served as a team captain and gained second-team All-Big Eight honors while helping Nebraska win its second consecutive national championship.
Looking back on his collegiate career, Veland doesn’t regret not being able to live out his dream of being a quarterback at Nebraska.
“I think everything turned out the way it was supposed to,” Veland said. “I had a lot of confidence in what I could have done at quarterback, but honestly, I don’t think I could have competed and performed with Tommie Frazier for the starting position. He was the greatest quarterback in Nebraska history. My move to defensive back allowed me to play professionally.”
Veland was selected in the sixth round by the Denver Broncos, and got a Super Bowl ring during his two seasons with them.
Veland successfully made a position switch, but for most players it is a difficult transition, especially for high school quarterbacks. Nebraska currently has a player on its roster, Jamal Turner, who was a top quarterback recruit, but switched to receiver. After a great start to the 2011 season, Turner who was a true freshman, faded and hardly played the rest of the year.
So what does it take to be able to master another position successfully? Veland said it depends on the player, and the situation he is coming from in high school.
“At Benson, we didn’t have 150 players on the team, we had 40 to 50 players, so the best ones played all the time. I played quarterback and defensive back, so making the transition from quarterback to defensive back in college wasn’t that hard for me.
“But if you have just played one position in high school, it will take you a little longer to learn everything and you may be a little bit hesitant. But if you do the little things right, have the right attitude and let your athleticism take over, then you can do it successfully.”