LINCOLN, Neb. -- Five years ago, Nebraska coaches finalized a recruiting class that featured the likes of quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., who seems to be setting career records weekly, and prolific receiver Jordan Westerkamp.
As a footnote to the 2012 class, the Cornhuskers announced the addition of 18 walk-ons, a group that grew in the offseason to include 10 players who earned scholarships. Defensive end Ross Dzuris, tight end Trey Foster, quarterback Ryker Fyfe, running back Graham Nabity, receiver Brandon Reilly, linebacker Brad Simpson and center Dylan Utter remain as fifth-year seniors, contributing to a team with a chance to win 11 games for the first time at Nebraska in 15 years.
Gone from the collection of former walk-ons are Andy Janovich, a rookie fullback with the Denver Broncos, receiver Lane Hovey and All-Big Ten punter Sam Foltz, who died July 23 in an auto accident after attending a kicking camp in Wisconsin.
The image of Foltz shines brightly in the minds of his former teammates this week.
Together, they extended a meaningful legacy as perhaps the most accomplished class of walk-ons at a school rich in walk-on tradition.
When the No. 18 Huskers host Maryland on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the seven seniors and Foltz will be honored before the home crowd as their stories -- touched by triumph and tragedy -- near a close in Lincoln.
Here's a look at the highs and lows of the journey, as told by those who experienced it:
'An unreal feeling'
Armstrong, Westerkamp, Foster and linebacker Josh Banderas visited Chicago on the fourth weekend of July this year to attend the wedding of Westerkamp's cousin. After the ceremony, all but Foster were set to stay in the city for Big Ten media days. But after Banderas took an early call from coach Mike Riley on July 24, they all came home to mourn Foltz. Word of the accident quickly spread that morning through other calls and by text messages to stunned teammates.
Brandon Reilly: I got the text from Zack Darlington and didn't believe it was real. I turned my phone off, then turned it back on. I just thought there was no way it could be true.
Dylan Utter: Brandon Reilly called me. It was an unreal feeling.
Brad Simpson: I got a call from Dylan Utter. He said Foltz was in a car accident and it sounded pretty bad. There was a pause. We were both like, "Is this real?"
A makeshift memorial was built as word spread of Sam Foltz's death. "I got the text ... and didn't believe it was real. I turned my phone off, then turned it back on," Brandon Reilly said. "I just thought there was no way it could be true." AP Photo/Nati Harnik
Graham Nabity: I got a text from a teammate, Ty Bekta, who said something about praying for the family and for Sam -- that he had passed away. To me, it wasn't actually Sam. I had to read it a couple times, but I didn't have any emotion. I didn't know what to think. I had no idea how to respond. I was in shock.
Andy Janovich: I was in disbelief.
Trey Foster: I didn't know what to do, but we all knew we had to get back to Lincoln.
Early signs of success
From the impromptu prayer vigil outside Memorial Stadium hours after Foltz's death, rewind 49 months to June 2012, the unofficial moment of launch for this walk-on class. All but Hovey, from Iowa, played at Nebraska high schools. They converged for two weeks of practice before the Shrine Bowl, an annual prep all-star game in Lincoln. Immediately, the future Huskers noticed Janovich, rock solid at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds. Turns out, they were on to something. He skipped a redshirt season. Two months ago, Janovich ran for a 28-yard touchdown on his first NFL rushing attempt.
Brad Simpson: We all wanted to be Janovich. He basically motivated our whole class to play.
Trey Foster: I showed up for the initial meeting, saw Janovich and remember thinking, "Wait, this guy couldn't get a scholarship? I have no chance at Nebraska."
Andy Janovich: I don't think it's right to say I was a big motivating factor. I wouldn't say I set the bar by any means. The other guys knew what they wanted to accomplish. Whether I got a scholarship or not, that wasn't going to determine anything for those guys.
Fullback Andy Janovich, now with the Denver Broncos, made an instant impact on all the walk-ons. "We all wanted to be Janovich," Brad Simpson said."He basically motivated our whole class to play." Eric Francis/Getty Images North America
Ross Dzuris: We realized about the third practice that a lot of guys in this group were pretty special.
Brandon Reilly: The day after the Shrine Bowl, most of us enrolled in class. And I think early on in summer workouts, we all knew that our walk-on class might be different.
Graham Nabity: We knew we could compete with anybody. Through the trenches of training in the offseason, in my opinion, it was really the walk-ons who pushed everyone through. We were willing to lead this team even if nobody knew our names.
Ryker Fyfe: Me and Foltz (a former Grand Island High School teammate) figured we could hang with these guys. We went out right away on the scout team and played with something to prove. I was a quarterback, and he played receiver. And he was good, a 4.4 guy. Mainly, he just ran past people.
Trey Foster: You've got to realize, Foltz didn't come here to punt. He was a guy who was going to play safety or wide receiver and, without a doubt, he was one of the most athletic guys on the team. In the spring after our first year, Coach [Bo Pelini] talked to Sam and asked him to punt a couple balls.
Ross Dzuris: That's when you realized he was going to start the next year, and there really wasn't any question about it. I was like, "Wow, that's an NFL punter on our team."
Trey Foster: And like that, he was done playing wide receiver.
Sharing the joy
Janovich, as expected, got his scholarship first -- in camp before the 2013 season. Reilly and Foltz came next in the summer of 2014, followed by Fyfe in August of that year. New coach Mike Riley delivered the news to Foster, Hovey, Dzuris and Utter in August 2015. Nabity received a scholarship last spring, and Simpson got his three months ago in addition to Logan Rath, another 2012 Shrine Bowl vet who transferred to Nebraska after one season at South Dakota State. Each time, the whole group shared in the joy.
Brad Simpson: I had been waiting for those words since I got here. As soon as I told my parents, my mom started crying.
Brandon Reilly: We always wondered which one of our guys was next. And so down the line, as they started coming, it was a great experience.
Ross Dzuris: Some teams will make a big deal out of it, but here at Nebraska, we're a lot more subtle. It's somewhat expected.
Trey Foster: Every single time one of us got put on scholarship, a month would pass and we'd all start joking around, telling that guy that he'd changed and forgotten where he came from. But Foltz was the main guy to make sure you knew he remembered what it was like to not have school paid for -- to have to figure out student loans and finances with your parents.
Sam Foltz, left, with former Gophers punter Peter Mortell. "Foltz didn't come here to punt. He was ... going to play safety or wide receiver," Trey Foster said. "He was one of the most athletic guys on the team." Photo courtesy of Peter Mortell
Early in the careers of the 2012 walk-ons, Foltz initiated a ritual. It might happen at practice or in the weight room or in a game. At any moment that required, he would make rings with his fingers and press them over his eyes.
Brandon Reilly: We joked about how we always had to keep the walk-on vision. We joked about it, but it was true. You've got to have that chip on your shoulder. We all had the mindset that we weren't good enough coming out of high school, so we had to continue to prove ourselves.
Mike Riley: What I have found [in walk-ons], most all of them really, really work hard to achieve their dream. These guys who got scholarships and are playing are great examples to the rest of them of what might occur. They were rewarded for a reason.
Graham Nabity: Foltz was the natural guy who took things to the next level. If he ever saw a guy who was slacking off, he would call him out. He didn't care. Sam Foltz was a punter. Since when do punters have that type of leadership role, especially in the weights and the running? They just kick balls. Well, that was definitely not the case with him.
Brad Simpson: In our summer workouts, he would lift with the early group, then stay after with the late group and encourage those guys. There was one time where the linebackers had to run stairs because some guys had missed a workout. Foltz ran them with us. It was awesome. That's just the kind of guy he was.
Foltz's senior legacy
Saturday marks a ceremonial conclusion for this group. They'll play again next week at Iowa, then at least once more. But for the former walk-ons, every relationship began in the state of Nebraska. Foltz's parents, Gerald and Jill Foltz, have attended each game this fall, traveling on the team plane and eating meals on the road with Sam's teammates this month. Nebraska figures to involve its late punter in the Senior Day ceremony. To his walk-on classmates, the presence of Foltz has remained strong, fueling their path to eight wins in 10 games.
Brad Simpson: He's always going to be in my heart. He's just that special kid. He wasn't like anyone else, just so positive all the time. If anyone needed to talk, he was there, the most down-to-earth guy. He connected with everyone.
Trey Foster: It still hurts, but I think it would hurt more if we looked back and didn't feel like we honored him every single week.
Sam Foltz has been honored by all of college football, but no tribute was more poignant than when Nebraska took the field for its first punt of the season with 10 players and no punter. "It's hard not to feel like he's with us," Ryker Fyfe said. AP Photo/Eric Olson
Ryker Fyfe: It's hard not to feel like he's with us. When I'm by myself, it's something I think about all the time. I'm still trying to get through and hope things get better. I know it's never going to be easy. It'll always be there, and I've definitely felt like he's watching over me. But this is the last game. I should be walking out with Sam.
Brandon Reilly: Different guys have different rituals. The specialists carry his jersey. Other guys write No. 27 on their tape. Even the guys who don't, I know it's still on their minds. You go through what we did, the bond we had, that's something you'll never forget, especially on game day. No one loved game day more than Sam.
Mike Riley: He's one of those guys that set the bar and was a great example and had that great passion and dedicated his sports life to making it here. And he did. And so we're always reminded of that. It's part of the identity, not only of Nebraska, but particularly this group.
Graham Nabity: We never stopped fighting. We don't ever give up. More than anything, that's the legacy of Sam Foltz.