Gerry puts self aside to find success
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CHICAGO - Sacrifice. It's a word that comes with a positive connotation, yet when asked to apply it to themselves, most shy from the responsibility.
Yet sacrifice is just what Brian Hermanson was asking of Nathan Gerry back in the fall of 2011. Gerry was about to begin his junior season at Washington High School in Sioux Falls, S.D., already having established himself as a dominant running back and receiver who dabbled with playing outside linebacker. But Hermanson, then Washington's head coach, was asking his star player to make a big change.
The Warriors played a 3-4 scheme that required the safeties to fill up when the outside linebackers blitzed, and the Washington coaches thought Gerry's speed and natural instincts made him a perfect fit on the back end. A move to safety wouldn't relieve Gerry of his offensive duties, but it would tire him more and likely limit his reps on the more glamorous side of the ball.
But Gerry didn't hesitate at his coach's request. If the team needed him to move, of course he would do it.
"Growing up I just always put the bigger picture in front of myself," Gerry said Friday at Big Ten Media Days. "My parents raised me really well where I always thought of others before myself. I play football to compete and win championships and I'm going to do what it takes to win championships. And if switching positions is what it takes, I'm going to do it."
That's the funny thing about sacrifice - often it ends up working out well for both parties. Washington won state titles in three of Gerry's four seasons and Gerry became a force at safety, attracting the attention of big-name schools along the way. One of those was Nebraska, which also would ask Gerry to make a sacrifice just a few months into his college career.
As he does with most everything on the football field, Gerry charged into the move full-speed, not concerned about the ramifications it could have on his long-term future. Though the payoff wasn't immediate, it's now clear that his sacrifice helped mold him into one of the best safeties in the Big Ten.
On the first game of his sophomore high school season, Gerry broke his hand on a kickoff. Hermanson was deflated - Gerry was expected to be one of the offense's top contributors, and now he was likely out for the season.
Gerry had surgery in Sioux Falls that night and Hermanson went to visit him. His player shocked him by declaring that he would be back in time for the state playoffs just a few months later.
"I'm thinking there is no way this will happen, but he got back a couple weeks before the playoffs started and he really helped us on both sides of the football," Hermanson said. "That's the type of kid he is - he'll always put his peers and his team before himself, and that's why he's such a good leader."
Seeing Gerry's team-first attitude led Hermanson to approach him the following fall about the move to safety. Gerry wouldn't be giving up his offensive duties completely - he'd still account for 1,226 all-purpose yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior - but he would be asked to learn something new.
"He said, 'Coach, I'll do whatever it takes to get us another state championship,'" Hermanson said. "He moved and the rest is history. It kind of took off from there.
"He never put himself before his peers, whether it was in the classroom, the hallways or on the athletic field. The things that he accomplished were always secondhand or behind the scenes. He wanted to accomplish great things, but his peers and his teammates always came first."
Gerry racked up 73 tackles and three interceptions as a junior, then had 64 tackles and five picks as a senior, justifying Hermanson's decision. But the interest from college coaches was, as Gerry calls it now, spacey. He never even heard from Miami, his dream school.
"I'd have a burst where five coaches would come in, then I'd go weeks without seeing anybody," Gerry said. "It's tough being in South Dakota. You have to do something out of the blue that catches peoples' eyes and makes them believe that you can play at the collegiate level."
For Gerry, that something was track. Gerry won the state 200-meter dash as a junior, then defended his title as a senior with a state-record mark of 21.52 seconds (he also won the state 100-meter dash that year). Some college interest finally started to trickle in as Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan State, Arizona State and others began popping up.
"All the coaches wanted to come and see if I could really run the numbers people were talking about," Gerry said. "Track season is when it started hitting hard."
Gerry visited only Nebraska and committed after attending NU's Big Red Weekend in 2012. Though only a three-star prospect, it didn't take long for his athleticism to open eyes once he got to Lincoln, leading to another request for a position change.
"He was so natural," said Hermanson, now the defensive backs coach at the University of Sioux Falls. "He had great speed and unbelievable instincts. At that time I'd coached 30 years, and you don't see athletes like that come along very often. People knew of him, but when he finished his senior year of playing it kind of went off the scale."
When Gerry arrived at Nebraska in the fall of 2013, the Huskers appeared set at safety. They already had veterans Corey Cooper and Andrew Green slotted in as starters with intriguing youngsters Charles Jackson, LeRoy Alexander and D.J. Singleton behind them. But the squad was thin at linebacker, and then-coach Bo Pelini asked Gerry to move down and help out at the position.
Though undersized and inexperienced, Gerry didn't hesitate. Having an unshakable sense of confidence certainly didn't hurt.
"I've always been able to pick up things pretty well," Gerry said. "You show me what a medium-rare steak looks like and I'll be able to cook a medium-rare steak."
Unfortunately, Gerry didn't pick up linebacker as quickly as Nebraska wanted. He started three of the first four games but was mostly relegated to special teams duty for the rest of the year. He led the team with seven special teams tackles, but some were left wondering what could have happened had he not made the change.
That question was answered last fall. Green graduated and Cooper missed spring practice with an injury, leaving Alexander and Gerry as the top safeties for the spring period. Gerry felt so much more confident back at his old position, and it showed in his play.
"When I was a freshman, I was nervous and I didn't know how things really went or how they worked, so I relied more on others than myself," Gerry said. "Now I'm able to speak with a strong voice, and that helps me be a lot better."
It didn't take long for his teammates to take notice of the new Gerry, and his frenetic style earned him the nickname "Ballhawk" from quarterback Tommy Armstrong.
"I've never seen a person like him at safety," Armstrong said. "He's the only person I'm trying to stay away from on our defense. They want him to be that guy that's the quarterback of the defense.
"I tell him all the time, 'If I'm looking somewhere and you know where I'm going with the ball, go get it. Make me a better quarterback.'"
Last Nov. 15 may well be one of the lowest points of Gerry's career. That day Nebraska lost 59-24 at Wisconsin and, though Gerry made nine tackles and forced a fumble, Melvin Gordon ran for a then NCAA-record 408 yards and embarrassed the overmatched NU defense.
Despite the debacle, Gerry earned some serious respect from one of his top peers that day. Wisconsin safety Michael Caputo, a consensus second-team All-Big Ten pick last season, noticed Gerry's penchant for constantly being near the play, a necessary trait for the position.
"You watch the Wisconsin-Nebraska game last year and he's all around the ball and he's constantly making plays, and that's miniscule compared to what he's done the past couple years," Caputo said. "He's just a great player. He has a long road ahead of him in terms of where he can take his career."
Caputo found the despondent Gerry after the game and tried to cheer him up by complimenting Gerry on his play. But the elder player didn't have any new tips for his foe.
"Tips for him?" Caputo said. "I should be asking him for tips."
That's how most safeties around the Big Ten felt last fall as Gerry experienced a breakout campaign. Cooper returned from his spring injury, but Alexander was suspended for the season, opening the door for Gerry to start. All he did was finish second on the team with 88 tackles and pick off five passes, the third-most in the conference, on his way to second-team All-Big Ten honors.
His breakout campaign proved his freshman season wasn't a total loss. Though his time on the field was limited, playing linebacker allowed Gerry to see the field from a different perspective, which helped him when he moved back to safety.
"I think when you move him back a couple yards the game slowed down a little bit," then-defensive coordinator John Papuchis, now at North Carolina, said last November. "As a 'backer, you have to be primary in the run but also have coverage responsibility. It's the same at safety, but you're doing it from five yards deeper, so he has a little more time to recognize what's going on, and that probably did help his development."
It wasn't just the Big Ten that took notice. Armstrong began getting texts from friends at Oklahoma State about "that No. 25" and how good he was. Gerry was also named to the Lott Trophy Watch List for the upcoming season.
And Gerry believes he could be even better this fall. Pelini's defensive scheme required his players to make more pre-snap reads and watch certain assignments, while new coordinator Mark Banker plans to allow the players to move more freely.
"I'm looking forward to moving around more and being more open," Gerry said. "Hopefully I get my hands on some more balls this year and will be able to make more plays as opposed to last year when I was stuck on the boundary the whole time."
But, as Hermanson found out years ago, Gerry's value extends beyond what he brings between the sidelines, and the Huskers would need his leadership when struck with adversity this offseason.
Last spring, Armstrong dropped back to pass during a routine half-pads, non-contact spring practice scrimmage. He surveyed the field and lofted a ball deep down the left sideline, failing to notice Gerry sneaking over. Gerry pounced on the pass, tucked it inside the front of his jersey and began screaming like a wild man while returning the ball, spinning and juking out the offensive players, none of whom were making any attempt to tackle him.
"Nate's an animal," receiver Jordan Westerkamp said with a laugh. "He is a crazy man, and I'll be honest, he's an intimidating guy. He plays so hard and with so much energy. It's really cool to see that out of a guy on defense because it motivates you on offense to want to go out there and go crazy.
"It picks me up and I'm on the offense. It's so motivating to be around people like that because it just makes you want to play harder and play for those guys."
Gerry has always considered himself to be a leader, but there were those that didn't want to listen last fall. He was a sophomore with little playing experience and was just moving back to his old position. Not all the veterans wanted to hear from the brash youngster.
"Last year sometimes I got the cold shoulder because I was one of the younger guys, and sometimes no one wanted to look up to a younger guy," Gerry said. "It was tough. I would try to give someone advice and they would listen to it or whatnot, but not really take it to heart.
"I never got blown off or anything. But sometimes we didn't look at the bigger picture as a whole group, and that's something that hurt us. We were never all on the same page as players."
Gerry believes those types of attitudes led to the Jekyll-and-Hyde performances of the defense last year. The Blackshirts looked great in the second half of the Michigan State and Northwestern games and dominated the opening stanza of the Minnesota contest. But they also struggled mightily for other portions of those games, not to mention poor performances against Miami, Wisconsin and USC.
Those failures played a large role in Pelini's dismissal, which came as a surprise to the players after their spirited comeback win over Iowa. Many felt blindsided by the move and Gerry, though still just a sophomore, felt the need to fill that leadership void.
The turnover continued even after new head coach Mike Riley was hired. Defensive backs coach Charlton Warren, the one holdover from the Pelini staff, left the team for North Carolina in February. The veteran defensive backs were used to seeing their position coaches depart (Brian Stewart is now their fifth DBs coach since 2011), but true freshman Aaron Williams, Eric Lee and Avery Anderson, all early enrollees, were dealing with it for the first time. Gerry made sure to be there for the rookies and help them through the transition.
On the field, Gerry describes his style as "demanding," and said he doesn't have much patience when things are done the wrong way.
"I believe that I want to be the one in control because I know how to get it done and I know the ways to get it done," Gerry said. "I have the best ways and best skills to get it done, so I'm very demanding… in a good way, I'm demanding.
"Last year I was more demanding because people didn't want to listen to me the whole time. Now this year I think people are going to buy into it and I'll only have to say things once as opposed to twice like I did last year because I think people are going to start realizing I've been there and done that."
Nebraska will need another strong campaign from Gerry if the Blackshirts are to take another step forward in Riley's maiden season. The offense, which loses record-setters Ameer Abdullah and Kenny Bell, not to mention three starting offensive linemen, could take a bit of a step back as Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf try and mesh their philosophies with Armstrong's strengths.
That puts an extra onus on Gerry, who was named as one of three defensive captains along with Maliek Collins and Jack Gangwish. With BYU and Miami on the nonconference slate, Nebraska's defense will have to show improvement in a hurry or risk getting burned by some talented offenses.
The new scheme figures to help. Superior athletes like Gerry and linebacker Josh Banderas will be freed up to make more plays with less thinking, and one player's mistake should no longer doom an entire play.
"This year we're going to have four or five hats to the ball, where last year some plays were made for one person or two people to make that play," Gerry said. "If you didn't and you missed the tackle, it was a touchdown or a big run. This year you're going to see a lot more Blackshirts to the ball."
But the Huskers will need a voice to lead them through that transition. Gangwish is a hard worker but has just three career starts, while Collins is a more soft-spoken player who lets his performance do the talking.
That leaves Gerry, who now has the blend of experience and leadership to get his point across to his teammates. He believes the inconsistencies that plagued the unit last year should evaporate with better communication.
And Gerry's track record speaks for itself. Not only is he one of the defense's most decorated players, but when he asks teammates to sacrifice, they know it's not just lip service. They can look back to how Gerry moved positions and gave up playing time his freshman year, and how that selflessness helped not only the team but Gerry himself.
"I just love playing football," Gerry said. "Any time you get the opportunity to go out and compete against another group… it's just what I've done since I was a kid. You just wake up and you want to go out and play some tackle football. It's like my job right now, and I can't complain about the job I have."