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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - For a majority of walk-on players at a college football program it is an uphill battle in order to be an athlete that contributes on the field.
Typically, the impact of a walk-on player is felt on scout teams during the week, but at West Virginia there is a proud tradition of excellence when it comes to walk-ons.
Former Mountaineer offensive lineman Rich Braham enjoyed a 13-year career in the NFL, and fullback Owen Schmitt is entering his fourth season in the league.
Currently, fullback Matt Lindamood is expected to be a key contributor this season, while another walk-on with a famous last name could see important playing time as well.
Wide receiver Ryan Nehlen, who is the grandson of former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen and the son of equipment manager Dan, has earned his opportunity to play with the installation of coach Dana Holgorsen’s offensive scheme.
“It is an opportunity,” said Nehlen. “I have always had faith in my capabilities. It is just the timing, and I am just trying to make the best of it.”
Prior to the arrival of Holgorsen and his pass-happy offense, Nehlen was unsure that his opportunity would come, but his persistence and patience is paying off.
In fact, Nehlen was named the 2011 Nickolich award winner, which is presented to a walk-on member of the team that distinguishes himself through his attitude and work ethic.
“Over the years, I have matured physically on and off the field,” Nehlen said. “I have always tried to work hard since I have been here, whether it is in the weight room or trying to be a leader by example.”
After a spring which saw Nehlen emerge as the No.1 receiver at the Z position, the redshirt junior used the summer to continue to build a connection with quarterback Geno Smith.
“Over the summer, we built a good bond and a good chemistry with each other during seven-on-seven drills,” Nehlen said. “We are on the same page.”
In addition to continuing to improve, Holgorsen has referenced on multiple occasions that Nehlen has been the team’s most consistent receiver during camp.
“The coaches stress consistency a lot,” Nehlen said. “You have to stay consistent or you are never going to be good. You can’t have those up days and down days because you will never be great.”
Holgorsen even compared Nehlen’s consistency to that of his former Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon, the 2010 Biletnikoff Award winner.
“It is definitely exciting to be compared to Justin Blackmon with the numbers that he put up in this offense,” Nehlen said. “Coach Holgorsen always talks about the way Blackmon worked hard and, eventually, everything just came to him, but it took a little bit of time for him and his quarterback to get on the same page. When they did finally get on the same page, they kind of just exploded.”
Along with working with Smith to improve, Nehlen works day in and day out against potential All-American cornerback Keith Tandy.
“Keith Tandy is my nemesis, but it is a pleasure going against him during practice,” Nehlen said. “He just makes you better because he is a hard worker. He works his butt off, and he is very smart out there. He may not be the fastest player, but he is always in the right position and just makes plays.”
Now, with the season just weeks away, a lot of focus will be put on whether Nehlen can live up to the hype.
Nehlen, though, says his grandfather has given him words of encouragement to deal with the build-up to the first game and to show how proud he is of his grandson.
“He likes what I am doing on the field and says that I should get a shot this year,” Nehlen said. “He has said that he is proud of my progression and will be watching all of the games this year - that is for sure.”
So will the rest of us.
Ryan Nehlen, West Virginia University Mountaineers, NCAA college football
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