LINCOLN — Coach Mike Riley made a point of complimenting the play of redshirt freshman offensive tackle Nick Gates during his Monday press conference. Gates, the only underclassman starter on the offensive line, said after Tuesday’s practice he thought he held his own in the win against South Alabama.
“I feel like I finished pretty well,” Gates said. “I played with good leverage, good pad level.”
Gates’ performance is partly notable because he’s in only his sixth year of football. He didn’t start playing until his freshman year of high school and only then because the freshman coach at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman helped persuade Gates’ mom, Sonya, to let Nick play. Until that point, he was a baseball player — a pitcher who could throw a fastball in the low 90s — and eyeing a college scholarship in that sport.
Mom relented, and Nick played for Gorman, one of the nation’s top prep programs. It routinely churns out college prospects, travels around the nation and plays in a state-of-the-art stadium.
Gates played on the varsity football team as a 6-foot, 220-pound freshman. His mentor was Ronnie Stanley, who’s now at Notre Dame and a top prospect for the 2016 NFL draft. Gates didn’t initially know how to even get in a stance, but he learned quickly from Stanley.
“He was physical and aggressive,” Gates said. “It’s difficult to fill his shoes when you’re not like that.”
Once Stanley left, Gates became the strongside tackle — he’d line up on the left or the right depending on the strength of the formation.
“You had to bring your best every day,” Gates said. “It was kind of like a college atmosphere. Everybody does their job great, and you have to do your job just as well.”
Gates picked Nebraska in large part because of line coaches Barney Cotton and John Garrison. The duo knew then-Gorman coach Tony Sanchez quite well; when Sanchez took over the head coaching job at UNLV, he hired Cotton as his offensive coordinator and Garrison as his offensive line coach. The two were fired from Nebraska after the 2014 season, but Gates stayed on at NU because of the reputation of Riley and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh.
Hurricanes stout against the run
Miami will be a formidable challenge for the Husker run game, which rebounded from its struggles against BYU to go for 258 against South Alabama. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said NU will need to have some consistency in its rushing game to help its overall rhythm.
The Hurricanes have allowed 276 rushing yards through two wins and 4.1 per carry.
“They are quick. They’re good up front, and they return a lot on their defensive squad,” Langsdorf said. “They’re 300 (pounds) across the board on that defensive line, so they will be tough to just move out of the way, and they’ve got some back-end speed, too, especially at linebacker.”
While Nebraska committed to Terrell Newby against South Alabama and expects the junior to again carry a good share of the I-back load, Langsdorf did say coaches will look for some spots to spell him this week.
LB welcomes hard coaching
Tyrin Ferguson has made his Husker debut as a special teams asset, and he’s enjoyed a steady climb up the depth chart at middle linebacker, but it’s not getting any easier for the true freshman from New Orleans.
That’s because his position coach always has another lesson to pass along.
Ferguson’s improvement has given the coaching staff confidence to consider him as an option to back up junior Josh Banderas. Ferguson picked up his first career tackle on a South Alabama kickoff return last week.
But the confident Ferguson — who said he always expected to skip a redshirt year and who’s made sure to sit in the meeting room’s front row since preseason practice — knows he has plenty of weaknesses. Linebackers coach Trent Bray is helping him fix them. So he gets on Ferguson a lot.
The tough love is welcomed, though.
“Coach Bray coaches me hard. I know he loves me, but he’s always on me hard,” Ferguson said. “I never get a day off with Coach Bray, but you learn from that and you grow.”