CHARLESTON — It's been a wild ride for Eastern Illinois linebacker Nick Horne. At first, the Park Forest native decided to go to NCAA Division II school Winona State, but after a year, he wanted to give D-I a shot and transferred to EIU.
When he arrived at EIU, Horne was a safety, but the coaching staff moved him to linebacker. So within two seasons, Horne not only moved up another level, but he had to learn a new position.
Horne finally got to see the field as a sophomore in 2015 as a reserve linebacker and flashed his playmaking ability, showing he was going to be a force when he earned a starting job as a junior. It also helped Horne go from a walk-on player to a scholarship player going into his junior season.
He hasn't disappointed in those two seasons. As a junior, he started all 11 games at linebacker and ranked second on the team with 74 tackles, including 12 tackles for a loss and five sacks.
Now Horne is one game away from wrapping up his college career and his senior season has been another impressive one. Horne was named a team captain before the season began. He's third on the team with 60 tackles and he leads the team with 10.5 tackles for a loss.
Horne has never doubted his capabilities throughout the whole process, but even he said he couldn't envision the last four seasons at EIU going this way.
"It does hit home a little bit. It's been a great journey for me. Starting as a walk-on and being where I am now after three different (defensive) coaches, it's been a great experience," Horne said. "I prayed upon it many a times and my mother talked about it, it's unbelievable. I never would've believed I would be standing here right now in this position. Having kids ask for my autograph, I never thought it would happen."
EIU coach Kim Dameron said Horne has taken on each adjustment thrown at him and used it to become a playmaker for EIU's defense.
"When he got here, you could see the athleticism for sure. It was not only a big transition for him coming from a D-II to here, but also from safety to linebacker," Dameron said. "He's had three (defensive) coaches in three years. He's had a lot of adjusting to do but he's handled it in a good way. He's made a lot of plays for us."
Out of all of his accomplishments, being named a captain this season is something that means the most to Horne because he knew he was an unknown coming from a D-II school. Since then, Horne has earned the respect of his teammates and they bestowed upon him the title of team captain.
Horne takes the captain role to heart. He learned under former EIU linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, who is currently a key special teams player for the Philadelphia Eagles, and he wants to pass on the same knowledge he learned from Grugier-Hill to the players who are behind him on the depth chart - true freshman Dytarious Johnson and redshirt freshman Sean Williams.
"I am trying to teach them the game because there's a lot more to football than just being able to tackle. There's a lot of things to read before the plays that I have mastered," Horne said. "One of the biggest reasons I am sitting here right now with the playmaking ability that I have is because (Kamu) taught me so much."
Grugier-Hill had knack for tackles for losses, compiling 28 over his final two seasons. Horne has that same knack for TFL's. During his sophomore season, Horne had to fill in for Grugier-Hill for a game due to injury and some some time off the bench. He finished the season with 7.5 TFLs. Last season he had 12 TFLs and he currently has 10.5 TFL's this season.
Horne said there is a special joy to getting a TFL.
"It's a great feeling because I am beating you before you get to your own line," Horne said. "That's my mentality, get to you before you can get to the line. The only thing that can beat that feeling is a sack or a pick-six. But TFLs, I live for those, I love them. That just means that you knew it, no ifs, ands or butts."
Horne may seem undersized to play linebacker at the next level since he is listed at 6-2, 220 pounds, but that's the same listing as Grugier-Hill on the Eagles' roster. Grugier-Hill was originally a sixth-round pick by the New England Patriots before he was traded to Philadelphia last season.
Horne also sees himself as a hybrid safety in the NFL and he's shown the same playmaking ability as Grugier-Hill in college. Horne feels he's shown scouts what they need to see and that he deserves a shot on an NFL team.
"Especially now with the hybrid safety becoming very popular in the NFL, I feel I fit that position perfectly," Horne said. "But I have to finish strong and always grind. I am always grinding. Just have to stay positive. Like every game, I am going to come out and play my game and we are going to play as hard as we can."
The NFL is the No. 1 goal for Horne, but he does have a Plan B. Horne is a business management major.
"I would like to own my own business, a family plaza. I want to do something for the community more and do that type of work," Horne said. "When I make it to the NFL, stay positive as I always say, use that money to help my dream. With all of the things going on with brain injuries in the NFL, I see myself investing early and when my time is done, I am going to hang it up and not try to push it anymore."
But right now, Horne is relishing his last game in an EIU uniform on Nov. 18 at Austin Peay. For Horne, it's been a great ride at EIU.
"I'm truly blessed. It's still mind-blowing," Horne said. "It's a great experience. I gave this program my all and did everything to stay positive and do everything they need me to do. I am truly thankful to the Eastern Illinois football program. They gave me a chance that a lot of schools probably would've never have gave me."