CHICAGO — It became evident to safety Nate Gerry that the more game-changing plays he made last season, the more weight his opinions carried.
Early in his sophomore year, Gerry felt his advice wasn’t always being received by his teammates. He’d witness a costly breakdown, but his suggestions weren’t always applied.
That was tough, Gerry said — especially because he was part of a defense that surrendered 66 plays of 20-plus yards, which ranked 99th nationally. Many of those busts, Gerry said, related to the unit not operating cohesively.
Gerry didn’t have all the answers, nor was he blameless. But he’d like to see Nebraska’s defense regain its elite status, and he told reporters at Big Ten media days Friday that it won’t happen until the unit overcomes the communication friction that plagued it last season. Just not enough working together, he said.
“Sometimes we didn’t look at the bigger picture as a whole, as a whole group,” Gerry said. “That’s something that hurt us. We were never all on the same page, as players.”
They gave up scoring drives to start games. They got waxed at Wisconsin — Gerry said they didn’t “show up” that day. They couldn’t hold the lead against Minnesota and surrendered too many points through three quarters against USC.
“It’s kind of rough when 10 people are doing their job and one person’s not,” Gerry said. “If we’re not on the same page and something bad happens, that was probably the most frustrating thing.”
Frustrating to Gerry because he wasn’t always in the best position to fix it.
But as the season progressed, Gerry noticed guys turning to him. The Big Ten media named him second-team all-conference. The team picked him as the defense’s co-MVP. He had 88 tackles and five interceptions.
“I was confident enough. I knew what I was doing, and I wanted us to be great,” Gerry said. “So I took that extra step. Toward the end of last year, I took on that leadership role.”
Now he’s a captain, positioned to instill the cooperation he envisions but also responsible if the unit can’t build the needed chemistry.
He likes what he’s seen so far.
Players are detail-oriented, Gerry said, and open to learning new things. The hiring of secondary coach Brian Stewart has been a positive.
“The way he goes about his day,” Gerry said. “The way he approaches the film room. The way he talks to us.”
Stewart has fortified the group with confidence. Gerry, especially.
Junior quarterback Tommy Armstrong saw it every time Gerry stepped on to the practice field in the spring. Gerry didn’t hesitate to make a play.
“I call him the ball hawk,” Armstrong said. “He’s the only person I’m trying to stay away from on our defense.”
Gerry found his way to the football often. The coaches had Gerry reading Armstrong’s eyes — which provided good lessons for the quarterback, who found out the hard way when he needed to be more deceptive.
Gerry needed the work, too. He’ll likely be asked to take on added responsibilities in coverage downfield in a defense that is designed to swarm to the football.
But he welcomes the change. There are fewer schematic assignments, fewer presnap reads. The coaches are emphasizing multi-man pursuit.
“A lot more flying around,” Gerry said. “A lot more hats to the football.”
Gerry’s bought in. His teammates apparently have, too. That, to Gerry, is key as preseason camp approaches. And their mentality can’t waver when adversity hits.
“To be a championship-caliber team,” he said, “we need to be consistent, day in and day out.”
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