LINCOLN — When Eli Sullivan made two tackles during a three-down sequence early in the third quarter of Nebraska’s victory against South Alabama some fans might’ve checked a program to see who the Husker in the No. 30 jersey was—at least before PA announcer Nate Rohr identified him.
Even then, the name might not have been familiar. And that’s just fine with Sullivan.
“I’ve always kind of prided myself in being, like, the guy that no one knows,” he told a group of reporters on Monday, “because that’s kind of fun.
“It’s kind of weird doing an interview like this because now everyone’s going to know. But I like being the guy that might have to step in and make a play. It’s not necessarily for the fame and all that stuff. I want to do my job and help the team as best I can.”
Until this season, that meant playing on special teams, an often anonymous duty, particularly for walk-ons such as Sullivan, a junior and two-year letterman from Longmont, Colo.
Because of where he’s from, he probably would’ve drawn mention this week even if he hadn’t seen action at safety and been involved in four tackles.
He was tied with several others for third in tackles among the Huskers. But even in that he was overshadowed by Eric Lee Jr., who also went to high school in Colorado and got playing time at safety after starter Deontai Williams went to the sideline with an injury.
In addition to four tackles, Lee intercepted two passes, returning the first for a touchdown.
“When Eric got his chance, he was expected to play at a high level,” said defensive backs coach Travis Fisher. “Same thing (with Sullivan), go in the game you’re a ‘starter.’ It’s the same approach . . . that’s how I envision it to be, from when I got here, from when I started, from (fall) camp, and spring ball.
“Those guys are all treated the same. When they touch the field, they’re ‘starters.’”
So though the official stats won’t reflect it, Sullivan has been a “starter” at safety once in his career.
Sullivan has been a, self-described, “grinder” from the beginning.
He was on the scout team his first year and played on kick coverage as a redshirt freshman, when he played in five games and traveled to all the Big Ten road games. As a sophomore, he played in seven games, mostly on special teams.
“It started one-at-a-time,” he said. “One special team, it doesn’t matter what it is, it’ll change the game. Like they always say, it’s a third of the game. But I think it’s so much more than that, like you can change the entire momentum of a single game with one kick, one return, all that stuff.”
Less than 2 minutes after Lee’s interception return for a touchdown, JD Spielman returned a South Alabama punt 76 yards for a touchdown to increase the lead to 28-7.
Sullivan was on the punt return unit.
“Student of the game” can be a cliché, but it applies to Sullivan.
Consider his attitude toward special teams.
“Every play matters. Every detail matters. I pride myself in knowing every position on special teams,” he said. “I’m probably not a guy that’ll be a kick returner any time soon, but I feel like if I know every position on special teams, it gives the coaches confidence that they can throw me in at any time and that I can help at any position in any way needed. So it’s a huge part of the game.
“It’s definitely more than a third of the game.”
The same applies to playing safety.
He’s “another coach on the field,” said defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. “Sure, he corrects me sometimes. He studies the football game. There’s never a point where he’s out of position.
“I am just proud of him.”
Sullivan grew up a Colorado fan. There’s a “long history of Buffs fans in the family, season tickets here and there,” he said. But “that’s all in the past. We wear the red N now.”
Colorado didn’t show any recruiting interest in him, and Nebraska, well, “I took a visit here and loved it, everyone from the coaches to the equipment staff, the weight staff and even the guy holding the front door, every single person has a heart of gold, and it would be dumb of me not to take the opportunity to come here and see what I was worth.”
That was the previous staff, of course. But it’s only gotten better.
“It feels good to get up and throw the bones and see the guys you’ve been grinding with and all the, like, walk-ons and all the guys that have been here four years with me,” Sullivan said.
Except for family, those have been largely four anonymous years for No. 30.
Not so anymore.
Mike Babcock is a long-time Husker reporter and editor for Hail Varsity Magazine.