By MATT SCHUCKMAN
Herald-Whig Sports Editor
It didn't take long for Patrick Smith to figure out just how much University of Nebraska football means to the entire state.
Last weekend, while on his way to visit the Lincoln, Neb., campus, Smith was pulled over by a Nebraska state trooper shortly after crossing the border from Iowa.
Asked where he was headed, Smith explained he was exploring the possibility of transferring from Western Illinois University and making this his official visit to the Big Ten Conference school.
"He took my insurance card and went back to his car," said Smith, a kicker and punter who recently completed his junior season at WIU as one of 10 finalists for the Fred Mitchell Outstanding Place-Kicker Award. "He then waved me back to his car. We spent about 15 minutes talking about the Huskers."
Smith then walked away with a written warning and an idea of what the rest of the visit would be like.
"It made an impression," Smith said.
It convinced him there's no place he'd rather be.
Monday, Smith informed new WIU coach Bob Nielson he was transferring to Nebraska. The Quincy Notre Dame graduate has one year of eligibility remaining and will compete to be the Huskers' starting kicker.
"The opportunity excites me," he said.
Smith plans to graduate from WIU in May with a bachelor's degree in finance and will enroll in Nebraska's masters of business administration program with an emphasis in finance.
"The thing I learned while on my visit is Nebraska leads the nation in Academic All-Americans, even more than Notre Dame," Smith said. "I had no idea."
Smith, who went 10 for 10 on field goals and 11 for 11 on PATs last fall, said leaving WIU will be extremely difficult, and he expects Nielson to turn the program back into a consistent winner. He also believes he is leaving the Leathernecks in "capable feet" with redshirt freshman Nathan Knuffman, the 2011 Herald-Whig Player of the Year from Central-Southeastern, ready to take over.
Meanwhile, Smith sees a huge opportunity ahead.
Nebraska loses Brett Maher, a senior kicker and punter who was a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the media and named the league's Bakken-Andersen Kicker of the Year for the second time. Sophomore Mauro Bondi is the incumbent kicker going into spring football.
"This is an incredible opportunity and one that I will not take for granted," Smith said.
He pointed to the support of his parents, Brian and Donna, as one of the major reasons he pursued this opportunity.
"They allowed me to chase my dreams and not feel like I'm stepping out of bounds," Smith said.