LINCOLN, Neb. -- You want to know why Nebraska fans cherish the fullback?
The explanation resonates to the psychological core of the nation's fifth-most winning program.
“It’s tied to the blue-collar nature of the position,” said Jeff Makovicka, a former walk-on and Nebraska farm kid-turned-fullback who rushed for 902 yards from 1992 to 1995 and helped the Huskers win two national titles. “A lot of former fullbacks are Nebraska kids. There was always the thought and dream of Nebraska kids that they could play the position.
“And it’s a reflection back to the past. It brings you back to the glory of scoring those touchdowns against Miami in the national-championship game.”
The position evokes powerful emotions. It helps defines the spirit of Nebraska football.
Saturday in a 36-28 win over Southern Miss, Nebraska’s new coaching staff innocently cracked a long-closed window to Husker history, awakening a passion illustrated by the wave of energy that radiated from Memorial Stadium at the moment senior fullback Andy Janovich first broke a tackle in the second quarter.
A former walk-on with three career rushing attempts, Janovich rushed five times for 68 yards and rumbled for 53 on his lone reception. Of his 121 total yards, 30 came after first contact. And that does not count the final six yards of a 15-yard touchdown burst in the fourth quarter that was called back by a holding penalty.
Janovich said his brother rewatched the negated TD repeatedly on Saturday night. Other Nebraskans likely did the same.
His runs of 28 and 25 yards marked the longest by a Nebraska fullback since 2004. Over the past decade, according to the Omaha World-Herald, fullbacks rushed 16 times -- and not once since 2012.
"This program is storied. This program has won a lot of games. We're ready to be back where we were. Some schools don't have a past. We have a past, and people got to see a glimpse of that past again." Former Nebraska fullback Jeff Makovicka
Former offensive coordinator Tim Beck incorporated one running play for the fullback in his system.
"But it was strictly a practice play," said C.J. Zimmerer, who played the position from 2010 to 2013.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Janovich is a powerful runner in the mold of Nebraska fullback greats Tom Rathman, Makovicka and his brother Joel, who rushed for 1,458 yards from 1995 to 1998, and Cory Schlesinger.
Schlesinger played 13 seasons in the NFL but remains best known in Nebraska for his fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 15 and 14 yards as the Huskers came back to beat Miami 24-17 in the 1995 Orange Bowl to win Tom Osborne’s first of three titles.
“This program is storied,” Jeff Makovicka said. “This program has won a lot of games. We’re ready to be back where we were. Some schools don’t have a past. We have a past, and people got to see a glimpse of that past again.”
Ten Nebraska fullbacks topped 1,000 career rushing yards, including Frank Solich, who later coached Rathman, Schlesinger, Jeff and Joel Makovicka. Even Roger Craig, the Big Eight's third-leading rusher in 1981, played fullback a year later to fit in the same backfield with Mike Rozier.
“It was like a torch that was passed each year,” the older Makovicka said.
In the wake of discarded tradition, fans, friends and family for years asked the Nebraska fullbacks the same question: When are you going to get the ball?
“I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard that,” Janovich said.
His answer? “Don’t count on it.”
The Huskers, who open Big Ten play Saturday at Illinois, dialed up the fullback trap last week because Southern Miss showed a vulnerability. Don’t expect it every week, coach Mike Riley said.
But the success of Janovich did not surprise Nebraska coaches. They’ve watched him dominate on special teams, prompting Riley to tout Janovich as an NFL prospect.
“I know our coaches will take a longer look at what might be possible for getting Andy the football,” Riley said.
Janovich, after the game Saturday, snuck out of the locker room to avoid the awaiting media.
“I prefer to be under the radar,” Janovich said Tuesday.
He turned down a scholarship offer to Division-II Nebraska-Kearney for the Huskers.
“He looked like a grown man,” Zimmerer said. “He can run with guys you wouldn’t think he should be able to run with. He’s an athlete. Now, you see that. I'm proud of him. I'm glad he's finally getting his chance in the spotlight, because he deserves it.”
Janovich wanted to play linebacker in college, but got on the field as a true freshman at fullback and earned a scholarship in 2013, one year ahead of schedule.
“People are learning the same things about Andy that we’ve known for years,” said Chad Jepsen, his former coach at Gretna (Nebraska) High School. “He’ll do his job. He’ll do it well. And he’ll let his actions speak for him.”