Nebraska has had a history of great tight ends. In an offense that was run-oriented, this position was one of the most important, not only in the run game, but in the pass game, especially on play-action passes.
Husker tight end greats Junior Miller, Johnny Mitchell, Tom Banderas, Todd Milliken, Tracy Wistrom and Mike McNeill all brought attention to that position.
But there was one player who could have been the best ever at NU, if not for an injury that caused him to miss an entire season. As a result, that player was never quite the same when he returned for his final year in 2006.
“I think I could have been,” Matt Herian simply said when asked if he could have been one of the best tight ends ever at NU.
At 6-5 and 245 pounds, Herian was a wide receiver playing tight end. He still holds the tight end career receiving record for yards gained with 1,243 on 65 receptions. Herian also tied the tight end record for receptions in a game with eight.
Just imagine what those numbers could have been and the other records he could have set if he had remained healthy and worry-free to play in Bill Callahan’s West Coast offense.
The injury happened against Missouri in 2004. It was Callahan’s first season as the head coach, and Herian was on his way to his best season at NU, already with 24 catches, 308 yards and three touchdowns.
“We were running an outside running play with Cory Ross,” Herian remembered. “I was blocking and saw Cory running behind me…a defender rolled off him and into my leg.”
It was a tough rehab for Herian, who had surgery the same day he got hurt. He later underwent another surgery and had a new rod inserted. But the hardest part of the rehab was the mental part.
“I could do the same things as before, but had trouble getting my confidence back again,” he said. “It took me about half a year before I realized I was OK and got over my tentativeness. It probably looked worse than it did because I wasn’t getting the touches as before the injury.”
Because of the injury, Herian had to redshirt in 2005, and when he came back in 2006, he wasn’t the same player and wasn’t a huge part of the passing game. He saw his production cut in half in both receptions and yards.
According to Herian, the Husker offense evolved in another direction and other receivers were getting the ball.
It was a harsh reality for a player who had been a game-changer at the tight end position. That started during his high school days at Pierce (Neb.) High School.
As a senior, Herian caught 38 passes for 786 yards and 10 touchdowns. He also played linebacker, totaling 76 tackles and three interceptions, and punted for a 36.9-yard average.
He was a three-time Class C-1 all-state selection, and led Pierce to the state playoffs all four years. He had 24 career touchdown receptions and 2,386 receiving yards.
A great athlete, he ran a 10.7 in the 100 meters, had a vertical jump of 37 inches, and was an all-state basketball player who averaged 15 points and nine rebounds a game as a starting center for the Bluejays.
“I was recruited to play basketball by some Division I schools,” Herian said. “In football, Nebraska, Iowa, Iowa State, Purdue were my top four. Tennessee, Notre Dame, Oklahoma also sent me letters.”
But it was the Iowa schools that intrigued him the most.
“Kirk Ferentz was turning things around at Iowa. I camped at Iowa State, and their head coach Dan McCarney almost sold me on the place in Ames. Both those schools also interested me because they had a more balanced offense than Nebraska. They fit my skill set a little more,” Herian said.
Nebraska and lead recruiter Dan Young offered Herian during the summer before his senior season, and told Herian they were going to throw the ball more on offense. That is what he wanted to hear, and he committed to the Huskers before his high school football season started.
Herian thought he was going to redshirt in his first year, as he needed to put on a few more pounds and get bigger. But NU wanted a tight end who could get downfield and take the safeties out of the way for the other receivers, and Herian was the guy who could do it.
“When I got to Nebraska, we still had the traditional run offense with Frank Solich as head coach,” Herian said. “You had to block, and if you got lucky you could catch a long pass on play-action. When they recruited me, I think they were looking at becoming a more balanced offense. Coach (Ron) Brown was my coach, so if you weren’t going to block, you were not going to play very much.”
Herian’s big-play ability was evident in his stats, as he caught seven balls for 301 yards, with four touchdowns. He averaged a gaudy 43 yards per catch, and when he caught one of those bombs from quarterback Jammal Lord, there wasn’t a defender around to catch him.
“Jammal threw a good deep ball…it was definitely catchable,” Herian said. He was better throwing deep than short or intermediate passes.”
Herian described Lord as the best athlete on the team that year. “He was a good leader of the offense and in the huddle…he was fun to play with. If you look at his stats, he wasn’t very far off from the Nebraska quarterbacks who people think were the best. But you need to win games and championships to be recognized like that.”
In Herian’s sophomore season in 2003, he and Lord formed a nice pass/catch tandem. Herian led the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns, and even though Lord wasn’t regarded as a great passer, Herian was able to have his best season in terms of receiving yards with almost 500.
“I had deceptive speed because I had longer strides,” Herian said. “The play-action passes helped you get open….when you run the ball so much as we did, the safeties would come up to help on run support, and when they hesitated it would take me only one step and I would beat them down the field.”
Herian was a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end, and was named first-team All-Big 12 by the league’s coaches.
Then the injury happened the following year, and Herian was left with what might have been. But there was one bright spot from his final season in 2006, as he caught a 13-yard touchdown pass in the Huskers’ season-opening win over Louisiana Tech. He also had 61 yards receiving, and passed Wistrom to become NU’s all-time receiving yardage record holder among tight ends.
Before the injury, it looked like Herian would be a sure-fire NFL draft pick, as he possessed all the attributes needed to be a successful tight end at the next level. But teams questioned his potential due to the leg injury, so Herian signed a free agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I went down there for all their off-season workouts and was having a good preseason camp,” Herian said. “But I strained my Achilles tendon and hurt my calf muscle, and after the last preseason game I got released.”
He came back to Lincoln to rehab, hoping to get another shot, but didn’t hear from another team after that. It wasn’t an appropriate ending for a player that some compared to NFL star Dallas Clark.
“If I hadn’t gotten hurt, I probably could have still been playing the NFL,” Herian said confidently. “In the NFL, you see that teams have two or three tight ends. I could block when I had too, but was the best at running routes as a receiver.”