LINCOLN, Neb. – Nathan Gerry often felt overmatched last season, and you can’t blame him. He was a freshman linebacker playing at just a couple meals over 200 pounds and was asked, play after play, to challenge players more than 100 pounds heavier.
Former Cornhuskers secondary coach Terry Joseph suggested that he would steal Gerry this offseason, labeling him John Lynch as an homage to the ex-All Pro safety.
Joseph left Nebraska in December for Texas A&M, but his words stuck with Gerry, who approached Nebraska coaches after the Gator Bowl to inquire about a move to the secondary.
Tuns out, they were thinking the same thing.
“I feel like it’s more natural to me,” Gerry said after three practices this spring in the secondary.
He’s part of a revamped backfield under new secondary coach Charlton Warren, who came to Lincoln after nine seasons at Air Force. Gerry and fellow sophomore LeRoy Alexander have manned the safety spots this month in the absence of senior Corey Cooper, out with a foot injury.
They form the leading line of a youthful but athletic group of safeties that includes redshirt freshmen Drake Martinez and D.J. Singleton. Early enrollee junior college transfer Byerson Cockrell and fellow junior Charles Jackson, a reserve safety last season, have played primarily at the nickel position managed well by Ciante Evans in 2013.
“I don’t think people really see the athleticism we have at the safety spot,” Alexander said. “Drake and D.J., they’re young guys, but they’re getting it. Me, Corey and Nate are going to try to bring them along, because they’re a play away -- I don’t know if they realize that yet – just like I was.”
Alexander emerged last season, something of a surprise as Nebraska searched for consistency alongside Cooper, who led the team with 91 tackles.
“He has a base,” coach Bo Pelini said of Alexander, who collected 34 tackles as a redshirt freshman. “He has some experience, has been there, done that a little bit. He’s made some great plays in practice the first couple days. I think he’s a lot more comfortable. I think he can be exceptional down the line.”
Pelini said he feels the same way about Gerry, who started three games and had 32 tackles last fall. The 6-foot-2 Gerry, a former state high-school champion sprinter in South Dakota, actually added about 10 pounds to reach 215 this winter in anticipation of the move to safety.
Gerry said he prefers the view from his new position.
“The farther away you move from the ball in this defense, the easier it gets.” he said.
The Huskers practice Friday, Saturday and three times next week before taking time off for spring break. Don’t expect much movement from Cooper until the team reconvenes on March 31 for the second half of spring drills.
“He could probably practice right now,” Pelini said, “but when you have the sprain that he has, we don’t want him to aggravate it. He’s had great offseason up to this point. He has a lot of experience in our system.
“This gives us a chance to work the younger guys and get them ready, make sure that Coop’s 100 percent before he gets back out here.”
Alexander and Gerry said they’ve enjoyed working with Warren as the coach transitions to Nebraska. It’s played out smoothly over the first two months.
Warren is a strong communicator, the players said. Occasionally, that military background is evident.
“You can tell when he raises his voice,” Alexander said. “He doesn’t like repeat errors.
“He’s not afraid to tell us anything. For him to come in and coach us like he’s had us for years is really a positive.”
Good thing, because the Huskers needed to avoid disruption in the secondary. Warren must find the right fit at safety and cornerback, where Nebraska has used junior Jonathan Rose and redshirt freshman Boaz Joseph to replace Stanley Jean-Baptiste opposite senior Josh Mitchell.
So far, so good.
At safety, especially without Cooper, the growth will continue. But the early impact of Alexander and Gerry rates as one of the key developments this month on the practice field.
“We’ve got a lot of depth, but it’s going to come down to the playbook,” Gerry said. “Everybody’s an athlete back there. (Whomever) knows what to do in these situations is going to determine who gets to play and who doesn’t get to play.”