It shouldn’t come as any great surprise that true freshman linebackers Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry were more than ready for their Husker debuts Saturday against Wyoming.
Banderas is the son of former Husker tight end Tom Banderas, and Gerry’s father, Brian, is a college athletic trainer.
Football is in their blood, and Game 1 in Memorial Stadium was special for both players.
“I can’t explain the feeling; I’ve tried,” Josh Banderas said. “There’s no way to explain the feeling of walking out of the tunnel onto the same field as my dad did all those years ago. With the new stadium (expansion), thousands of people watching, it’s just a high I can’t explain.
"As much as I got in, I can’t complain. I played more than I expected. To get on the field that much as a true freshman was all I could ask for.”
Banderas figured he was in on about 20 plays, counting special teams, on Saturday; Gerry, maybe a few more. Both were on the field, though, as Wyoming made its final push to tie or take the lead late in the fourth quarter. Gerry said he and Banderas didn’t realize they had played the final few moments of the game together until later than night when they compared notes.
“I enjoyed all of it, from the hotel we stay in to the movie with the team,” Gerry said. “The tunnel walk is something special, too. I enjoyed everything about it, but when game time hits, it’s game time. I made mistakes, but we got the win, that’s all that matters.
“I was kind of nervous at the beginning of it, but once my name was called, it was just another average football game, kind of like high school but a little faster. There were a lot of mistakes we made we just need to clean up.”
Linebacker coach Ross Els said he and the rest of the coaching staff weren’t at all surprised the two players made it onto the field as true freshmen.
“They both committed fairly early to us,” Els said. “They wanted to be here and they wanted to help recruit the class. They’re both very mature and come from great families; that’s really big. It will be interesting to see where they end up at the end of the year because they both can be very special.”
Els said there are several factors that play into true freshmen making an impact early.
“There are so many things,” Els said. “It’s the physical thing — are they fast enough and strong enough? Then there’s the mental side, understanding what we’re doing. They are both good students and they understand football. There’s also the emotional side — ‘Can I handle it, can I walk out in front of 91,000 people and not look up at the scoreboard and just focus on the field?’
“They’re both calm kids who can really focus on the opponent and what they need to do. They have the makeup. They’re still young, and it’s just one game, but for that one game they performed well.”
Banderas, listed at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, is a fluid athlete from Lincoln Southwest who also won a state hurdles title. Gerry (6-2, 210) was recruited as a safety but was moved to linebacker in fall camp. He also is a former state champion in track (200 meters).
Certainly, Banderas and Gerry fill out a uniform.
But, Els added, measuring the mental and emotional side can be trickier.
“You don’t know until they get into a game, but our practices are that way, too. Not in front of 91,000 people, but you’re held accountable. It isn’t, ‘That’s OK,’ it’s ‘Hey, this has to be done this way.’ Those kids have shown they are able to make adjustments, and that’s what they did on Saturday.”
On Gerry’s first official visit to Lincoln to see a game last fall, Banderas invited the South Dakota prep star and his family to a get-together, and a friendship was formed.
Banderas and Gerry are roommates, along with fellow freshmen A.J. Natter and Adam Taylor. Banderas and Gerry study together, consulting their iPads and quizzing each other on assignments and adjustments. Last week, in preparation for the Wyoming game, Banderas said he and Gerry were talking about how much they were going to study.
“We were thinking, ‘Oh, crap, we may get on the field,’” Banderas said. “’So we’d better not look like idiots and study up.’ We go over all our mistakes, we talk about how hard it is and we joke around. We’re really good friends. Hopefully, we’ll be on the field together for four years.”
“Like the coaches say all the time, ‘You’re not a freshman anymore,’” Gerry said. “I’m playing like any other player on the team. They don’t treat me like a freshman, so I’m not going to act like a freshman. I’m going to go out and do everything I can to get better.”