LINCOLN, Neb. -- As a senior 2 1/2 years ago at prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, Nick Gates met Mike Cavanaugh, who handled the area in recruiting as offensive line coach at Oregon State.
“He was this short, little, fat, bald dude,” Gates said, recalling last week that the coach’s appearance surprised him after they had talked on the phone.
Gates said he liked Cavanaugh but that he liked Nebraska more. In January 2014, Gates picked the Cornhuskers over Arizona, Texas A&M, UCLA and Oregon.
Cavanaugh went about his business and one year later landed with Mike Riley at Nebraska, where Gates was completing a redshirt season. Last fall, he started 10 games at right tackle. This spring, Gates moved to left tackle. He has helped solidify Cavanaugh’s line and rates as one of the top, young linemen in the Big Ten.
And no longer does Gates, when he looks a Cavanaugh, see anything but a tough, fiery mentor with a mean streak. The coach is a solid match for Gates, who channels his aggression in practice and games to get the most out of a 6-foot-5, 290-pound frame.
“I kind of have a little switch I turn on during practice,” he said. “I’m not anybody’s friend out here. I’m here to earn a job.”
It seems Gates has already earned the job. He performed well in 2015 on the right side, earning Big Ten all-freshman honors from ESPN.com after he missed three games midseason with a high ankle sprain.
Nebraska lost left tackle Alex Lewis to graduation and positioned Gates as a replacement, opening a spot for 6-foot-9, 315-pound junior David Knevel on the right side. So far, the combination looks strong.
Cavanaugh describes Gates as “our best tackle.” It was an easy call, he said, to move the 20-year-old sophomore.
“He’s a competitor,” Cavanaugh said. “You see it every day. He’s tough. He finishes plays.
I’m very confident in him. He’ll compete like crazy.”
Foster, the Huskers’ highest-rated recruit from that class, is set to man the left side of the line next season with Gates.
Nebraska may have found its best chance to develop an All-Big Ten linemen with the duo. Amid a conference-title drought that dates to 2000, just one Nebraska offensive linemen -- guard Spencer Long in 2012 -- earned first-team all-league honors in the past decade.
The Huskers last produced an all-conference tackle in 2003.
Gates is accustomed to success. Bishop Gorman rolled to a 42-3 record in his final three seasons, often playing national-caliber opponents. Gates battled Miami defensive lineman Chad Thomas, formerly of Miami Booker T. Washington, and other future FBS defenders as he protected Gorman quarterbacks Anu Solomon, now at Arizona, and Randall Cunningham Jr.
During those experiences, Gates came to view the left tackle as “the second-best player on the field.”
So, yes, after Nebraska finished 6-7 in Riley's first season in the wake of seven straight nine- or 10-win seasons, Gates favored the move to left tackle.
“That’s definitely where everyone wants to be,” Gates said.
In the fall, he’ll be tasked to protect the blind side of senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., perhaps the Huskers’ most indispensable player.
None of Armstrong’s backups has won a game in college.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said he’s not concerned about the inexperience at a vital position on the line.
“He’s been fine there,” Langsdorf said. “The tackle positions really complement each other. It’s a little bit different fundamentally, but nothing that he can’t handle. He’s protecting the back side of the quarterback, so it’s a big position. But he’s been very good all spring.”
As for Cavanaugh, he’s been thrilled about the coincidental reunion with Gates since those first days. The coach, despite the unconventional path, got what he wanted from that first meeting in Las Vegas.
“It’s awesome,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s a fun deal. I was excited to be able to coach him.”