Thursday notebook: Gates living up to the hype
It’s been assumed since the end of last season that Nick Gates was going to be the face of Nebraska’s revamped offensive line in 2016.
Through the first three games, the sophomore left tackle has lived up to every bit of that title.
In helping the Huskers rack up an average of 43.3 points and 461.3 yards of total offense with only one sack allowed over the first three weeks, Gates has picked up right where he left off following is Freshman All-Big Ten campaign a year ago.
“Frickin’ nails,” offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said when asked how Gates had performed so far this season. “He’s tough, finishing blocks. I think he’s leading the team in pancakes and knockdowns. He is setting a great example and setting the bar high.”
Cavanaugh noted that one area in which the 6-foot-5, 290-pounder could improve was getting better leverage on his blocks. If he could consistently do that, Cavanaugh said, “he’ll be rolling a lot of people, you know what I mean?”
Gates has already received national attention for his play, being named the top run-blocking offensive lineman in Week One by ProFootballFocus.com. Even Gates’ teammates have noticed how well he has been playing.
“Gates just finishes,” senior left guard Sam Hahn said. “He leads our knockdown-pancake board by quite a bit. He’s just - you don’t want to say a ‘switch guy’ because that kind of puts a negative context on it - but Nick kind of goes out there and once it’s game time, he turns it on and is able to finish.
"Nick kind of has a physicality like that. He’s doing a nice job right now, and for me that makes my job that much easier.”
The best part for Nebraska is that Gates is just scratching the surface on how good he could be before all is said and done. With two seasons of eligibility remaining, Cavanaugh said he can’t wait to see what the future holds for his prized left tackle.
“He continues to grow and loves what he does,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s fun to watch him. He’s still only a youngster, so it’s going to be a fun couple of years with him.”
- Robin Washut
Newby still the starter, but Huskers will continue to go with hot hand
In two of the first three games of the season, it’s been senior Terrell Newby who has taken the field first as Nebraska’s starting running back.
In each of the first three weeks, however, it’s been sophomore Devine Ozigbo who has finished the job by taking over the workload in the second half.
Even though Ozigbo has emerged as the Huskers’ late-game sledgehammer and leads the team with 53 carries for 242 yards and four rushing touchdowns (Newby ranks third with 22 rushes for 118 yards), offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said there are no plans to change up the running back depth chart.
"We kind of rode the hot hand in that second half (against Oregon) and that was Devine, but both of them deserve playing time,” Langsdorf said. “They give you a little bit of different style running. But I think as the game wore on and we were wearing them down a little bit, it was good to have a big, bruiser in there. ... I thought he ran some guys over, which was big for us."
Langsdorf said Newby was still the starter for this week’s Big Ten opener at Northwestern, but don’t be surprised if once again it’s Ozigbo who carries the load late in the game.
Running backs coach Reggie Davis said Ozigbo - who had 18 of his 21 carries against Oregon in the second half - has really embraced the power element to his game. In turn, that has made him a much more effective runner compared to where he was last year as a true freshman.
“I like how he’s added the physicality to his game,” Davis said. “I really like how he’s running behind his pads right now. That’s something we really needed and we had to make sure we were able to fill that void once Imani (Cross) left, so that was good to see.”
- Robin Washut
Wilbon, Bryant must earn trust before roles can increase
Considering all the hype Mikale Wilbon got last year and then Tre Bryant received this fall going into their respective true freshman seasons, their roles in Nebraska's offense seem to be been shrinking by the week.
Wilbon has just one carry for 16 yards through the first three games, and that came back in the season opener vs. Fresno State. Bryant has fared slightly better, posting 74 yards on 13 attempts with a touchdown.
However, fumbles have become an early concern for the talented newcomer, putting the ball on the turf in each of the past two games (though both were recovered by teammates).
Wilbon’s only “touch” last week against Oregon came when a backwards swing pass by Tommy Armstrong bounced off his hands and was recovered by a Duck defender.
While both players have shown plenty of flashes of their potential, Davis said until they can prove to be consistently reliable options, their playing time will remain sporadic at best.
“Both of those guys know they have a role,” Davis said. “Our thing with those guys that we talk about a lot is trust. So if we can trust you, we’re going to try and find ways to implement you in the game plan.
“Tre’s just got to work on holding onto the ball and he knows he has to rebuild trust in that area from us. But the guy’s gonna be a good player. He’s young, but he’ll be alright, and Mikale’s got a chance to be able to help us out quite a bit.”
- Robin Washut
***Senior wide receiver Alonzo Moore practiced Thursday for the first time this week, and head coach Mike Riley said Moore would be considered questionable for Saturday’s game at Northwestern.
Moore, who has been dealing with a lingering shoulder injury, will travel with the team and will likely be a game-time decision. Riley said they’re “hopeful” Moore will be able to play.
***Senior wide out Brandon Reilly (hamstring) practiced once again on Thursday and is expected to be good to go for Northwestern. Riley said they carefully managed Reilly’s reps all week, and he made it through without any setbacks.
***Riley said no other Huskers would be out for the game.
***Riley said he expects Carlos Davis to get the start at defensive tackle once again this week, with Mick Stoltenberg coming in as a backup.
***Despite rumors that were swirling online earlier this week, Riley said Nebraska would not be wearing the new Kanye West “Yeezy” cleats on Saturday.
***Riley said it was definitely a tough chore narrowing down his first 70-man travel roster of the season this week. He said the numbers at some positions weren’t officially decided on until after lunch on Thursday. Nebraska had been suiting up more than 90 players for the first three home games.
***Another adjustment on Friday will be starting their schedule a few hours earlier. The Huskers will hold a walk-thru in Lincoln from 1-2:30 p.m. and then fly to Northwestern. Once there, they will have a team dinner at the hotel and then go through position meetings that night.
***Nebraska’s players were wearing the new helmets for their alternate uniforms during Thursday’s practice.
***It was great to see legendary former NU offensive line coach Milt Tenopir back at practice on Thursday. For those that don’t know, Tenopir has been battling some serious health problems lately and hadn’t been around the team as much. Riley said Tenopir “has been a great friend since the minute we got here” and was “a great link” for the new staff to the history of the program.