LINCOLN — The last game. Nick Gates needn’t say more about what has been pushing him through all those hot summer workouts.
Nebraska’s junior left tackle watched video of the Music City Bowl just once before leaving it in the past for good. But he remembers Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett — the No. 14 overall pick in last spring’s NFL draft — beating him off the edge time and again on national television.
Speaking during a media gathering inside Memorial Stadium before Fan Day on Saturday evening, the 6-foot-5, 305-pound protector of quarterback Tanner Lee’s blind side said the offseason has been a productive one for him and the rest of NU’s offensive line, which returns four starters and opens camp with Cole Conrad and Michael Decker battling for the top center position.
“I think we’re ahead of schedule than last year,” Gates said. “We’ve all played together other than the center, and I think we’re doing pretty good. We’ll figure that out here in the first couple weeks of camp and then get rolling. I’m pretty comfortable with everybody.”
Gates said he’s as strong as he’s been since coming to Lincoln out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas. At 305 pounds, he’ll be up about 10 from last fall. He added that he’s completely healthy after an ankle injury midway through 2016 that still only had him at “about 70 percent” by the bowl game.
Coach Mike Riley called the O-line a “focal point” at last week’s Big Ten media days, saying the unit needs to play well given its relative experience that includes juniors Jerald Foster (left guard) and Tanner Farmer (right guard) and senior David Knevel (right tackle).
Gates said that’s definitely the plan. It’s why those players — guided by position coach Mike Cavanaugh — grinded through drills in the afternoon heat.
“We want that pressure,” Gates said. “In tough games, we want the ball on our backs. Give it to us and we’re gonna move the rock this year.”
Turning up heat in conditioning
To a player, Nebraska’s offseason conditioning program was tougher and grittier this summer than some previous years.
It was also much hotter. NU players didn’t run in the morning; they ran in the mid-afternoon. Earlier this summer, one Husker staffer said the workouts were designed to test Nebraska’s mental and physical toughness.
Mission accomplished, according to nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg.
“Three in the afternoon on those 100-degree days, it took a toll on our guys,” Stoltenberg said. “Built our conditioning and our stamina a lot more than we had previously in different summers. But it was all good. I enjoyed it. If you can go through that, you can go through camp, and you can go through a game.”
Gates said the conditioning work — which for O-linemen included some specific drills with Cavanaugh — was “little things to grind and be tough and not die in the fourth quarter, how we’ve been.”
“One hundred yard bear crawls,” Gates said when asked for specifics. Nebraska offensive linemen did those twice a week.
Stoltenberg noticed, too, that older players were acting more responsible for younger players than in years past. This was by design; NU elected 11 position captains in the winter to help lead the team through all offseason conditioning phases.
“It’s more on the players than the coaches to hold each other accountable — which is how it should be,” Stoltenberg said. “You should be more worried about what your brother is going to feel about you, rather than your coach.”
Despite the running, Stoltenberg put on weight in the offseason. He played around 290 pounds last season at defensive tackle. He’s gained 25 pounds since then.
“The last time I weighed myself I was 315 — that was at night, probably after a big dinner,” Stoltenberg joked.
Freshmen ready to learn
Nebraska only has two freshman defensive linemen in camp — nose tackle Damion Daniels and defensive end Deontre Thomas. Both may have a chance to contribute early and both were popular at Fan Day while sitting among the freshmen.
Stoltenberg likes the duo as well, comparing them to Carlos and Khalil Davis, the sophomore twins who figure to play a lot this season. Like the Davis twins, Stoltenberg said Thomas and Daniels and willing to learn and listen.
“You come in from high school and a lot of these guys have big egos on them and think they can come in and contribute right away, and their opinion is the highest,” Stoltenberg said. “But those two, man, they’re awesome workers … I’m excited to see what they do with actual football pads on.”
Hoppes relishing a chance
What can the tight end position do for Nebraska this season? Tyler Hoppes thought a moment. It could open up the run game, he said. And lessen the burden on the wide receivers.
Shortly thereafter, the Lincoln Southwest graduate and Wayne State transfer with no catches as a Husker added that he believes he’s the man for the job.
“Like Mike Riley said, hopefully I can be a good ball catcher, a good receiver for us,” Hoppes said Saturday.
The walk-on who caught four passes for 66 yards in the spring game said former NU tight ends Cethan Carter, Sam Cotton and Trey Foster all had a hand in his jump to presumptive first-stringer when fall camp opens Sunday.
“All their game experience that I have a limited amount of, they really helped me put in perspective how the game speed is,” Hoppes said. “It helped a lot.”
Nebraska lists nine tight ends on its roster, seeing strong springs as well from the likes of sophomore Matt Snyder, redshirt freshman Jack Stoll and redshirt freshman Branden Hohenstein.
Freshmen Kurt Rafdal and Austin Allen are also in the mix, with Hoppes saying, “As far as doing drills, they look good.”