Keanon Cooper and Spencer Reeves were enjoying an amazing run four years ago. Skyline High was 12-1 and four rounds into the Texas high-school tournament in 2007, its farthest advance in school history, and the two linebackers were part of a defense that hadn't allowed more than two touchdowns in a game all season.
And then they ran into Rex Burkhead.
"Definitely one of the top players we ever saw in high school," Reeves recalls. "A lot of big plays."
The Gopher linebackers will meet Burkhead again Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, but plenty of things have changed. Now the Texas teammates are trying to help salvage a rough season for Minnesota, while their old rival from Plano High -- who scored three touchdowns that December day in Mesquite, leading Plano to a shocking 41-20 victory that ended Skyline's dream of a state championship -- now is the starting I-back, and chief running threat, for the 5-1 Nebraska Cornhuskers.
"I've got a lot of respect for him. It was actually a lot of fun playing against him," Cooper said. "That was an exciting game. I actually tackled him quite a few times, but he played such a great game."
He did. Burkhead gained 158 yards on 24 carries, and rushed for a touchdown, threw for another score and returned a punt for a third touchdown. It was the final game of the Skyline careers of Cooper, Reeves, and fellow Gophers Troy Stoudermire and Da'Jon McKnight, which sets up quite a reunion for Saturday.
Burkhead ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 105.8 yards a carry. "He's a nice-sized, big back," Reeves said. "Very physical. Not great speed, but a real downhill back."
He's also Mr. Popularity in Nebraska, easily the fan favorite in Lincoln. "Rex would win a most-popular-player contest in a rout," said Cornhuskers play-by-play man Greg Sharpe. "He's the epitome of Nebraska football to a lot of fans."
And a good guy to his former foes. "We said hello through Mike Rallis when he went to Chicago for the Big Ten media [day]. I'm excited to see him again, to play against him," Cooper said. "We have a history. It's not bad blood or anything, it's respect. ... But it would be nice to beat him."