LINCOLN — Jake Cotton knows that the day is coming when he'll look around and they'll be gone.
Spencer Long, Jeremiah Sirles, Cole Pensick, Brent Qvale and Andrew Rodriguez are down to their last eight or nine games as Nebraska offensive linemen.
“I guess I'll try to emulate them as much as I can with some of the young guys,” Cotton said Monday. “Me, (Mike) Moudy and Mark (Pelini) will be the seniors, and we got a great example of how to try and be leaders, with these guys and the guys that came before them.”
Cotton is appreciative of the assistance that has led him to the starting job at left guard on the Husker offensive line. It also has made the 6-foot-6, 305-pound junior want to do his part as a thank you to his veteran mates.
“They've been a tremendous help,” he said. “They've been my best friends since I got here, and ever since I moved to offense they've always been there to help me. And I know in games, if I'm unsure about something, I've got guys who've got my back.”
Cotton has been anything but a weak link up front as the NU line has helped the Huskers rank No. 9 nationally in rushing and No. 19 in total offense through five games.
The son of Nebraska assistant coach Barney Cotton is an athletic guard who can get downfield. Unlike a year ago, when he was still overcoming lingering problems from a 2011 torn ACL and played as a backup to Seung Hoon Choi, Cotton is as confident as ever with both his health and his game.
“It's just comfortability with it,” he said. “I wasn't playing well enough to play last year. But I think last year did help a lot ... helped me get the details down and get the technique down.”
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Cotton was listed as a defensive end when he signed in 2010 and started his Husker career on the scout-team defensive line as a redshirt. As it had done the year before with Long and Pensick, NU decided that winter to move Cotton over to offense.
Cotton said he had “all the faith in the world” in the Husker staff and trusted the decision.
“I was on board with it,” he said. “I wanted to play. I wanted to get out there and I wanted to contribute to the team, and they thought that was the best way. I couldn't be happier looking back on it.”
It helped that the staff included Barney Cotton, who now works with the Husker tight ends but was coaching the offensive line for Jake's first two seasons as a backup.
That father-son connection was never more important than that time right before spring practice in 2011. Jake Cotton said he felt like he was better and more instinctive on the defensive side in high school at Lincoln Southeast, so there was going to be an adjustment.
“There were a lot of late nights with my dad, getting geared up for spring ball that year,” Jake Cotton said. “I remember there was one or two times where I'm sitting at my folks' house at 11:30 or midnight still going over stuff, trying to wrap my head around these things.”
Cotton got to share the field some with his older brother last season, when Ben Cotton was a senior tight end. Now he's doing the same with younger brother Sam, a redshirt freshman tight end who caught his first career pass Saturday against Illinois.
Jake and Sam should get a chance to play a lot of football together over the next season and a half.
“I saw a picture of me and Sam on the field after the game last Saturday,” Jake Cotton said, “and I just wish I was a little bit better when Ben was here to have the same experience with him.”
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Video: Nebraska's Monday press conference: