If Nate Gerry is fortunate enough to find himself in the grill of UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, expect the Nebraska safety to have a few one-liners ready to roll off his tongue.
That has nothing to do with Rosen personally, but everything to do with the fact he’s a true freshman — that, and Gerry’s keen memory of playing UCLA two years ago.
Gerry, then a true freshman himself, was making his first career start — as a 205-pound linebacker — in Nebraska’s 41-21 loss at Memorial Stadium.
Gerry said he’s never been more nervous in a game, and some veteran Bruins didn’t help matters.
“All those UCLA guys, they must have done their scouting, because they gave me a bunch of freshman jokes and stuff out there on the field. They gave me a bunch of crap,” Gerry said. “They were just making fun of me, because I was one of the smaller linebackers, because I was a freshman, and all the linemen were just picking on me.”
Suffice it to say Gerry is excited for another opportunity when Nebraska (5-7) plays UCLA (8-4) in the Dec. 26 Foster Farms Bowl.
“Now I’m the older one, so now I hopefully get to go out there and give their quarterback some crap and stuff like that,” Gerry said.
“I’m going to think of something good, because they got me my freshman year, so I’m going to get them back.”
First, Gerry must be certain he can back up whatever words he has prepared. For much of his junior season in a new defensive system, Gerry wasn’t in any position — figuratively and sometimes literally — to be talking.
Gerry’s numbers are very similar to last season’s, when he was second on the team with 88 tackles, had five interceptions and a half a sack. This year, he has a team-leading 75 tackles, with four interceptions and one sack.
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But big, game-changing plays were lacking, and Gerry was part of a secondary that ranked last nationally much of the season in pass defense.
“It’s frustrating, individually, but I think one of the most mentally tough parts for myself was just being able to find ways to make plays in the new defensive scheme,” Gerry said. “It was tough for me just being able to transition to defenses, regardless, and then trying to step up and be one of the senior leader-type guys to make those game-changing plays was kind of tough on me, and when I couldn’t do that, it mentally kind of got in my head.”
First-year defensive coordinator Mark Banker was as surprised as anyone that Gerry, known for his football smarts, took longer than expected to adapt.
“I don’t know if it was adjustment or what, but it just didn’t flow for him. It didn’t click,” Banker said. “He was resistant, I felt, in, ‘Hey, this is the responsibility in this coverage,’ and he held on so much to the habits that he had within that bracket coverage. He was always a zone-type of defender and always had help underneath. Just grasping the fact that, ‘You’re a man guy in these situations, so go ahead and do it.’
“I think (later in the season) he began grasping exactly what needed to be done. At the same time, the physicality of it improved, also. He’s a really smart football player and he’d get himself in position, but he just wasn’t going after or attacking things.”
Gerry said toward the end of the regular season, he began to “figure out” the defense a little bit more.
He wasn’t the only one, either. Nebraska’s pass defense made strides over the final three games, two of which the Huskers won.
“It’s tough when you come into it only knowing one certain thing and that’s kind of the thing you think is the only way," Gerry said. "It’s tough to kind of adjust, and I think that as the year went on, a bunch of guys adjusted real well.”
Against UCLA, the Blackshirts will have their eyes on Rosen, who threw for 3,349 yards, with a 59.5 percent completion rate. He had 20 touchdowns with nine interceptions, and only two games — against BYU and USC — in which he threw more interceptions than touchdowns.
“We play a younger guy like that, I feel like he’s going to make a mistake or two, but he’s a good quarterback, so you know he’s going to throw some good balls, too,” Gerry said. “As a secondary, it’s nice to know that they’re going to throw the ball a lot, and that they do have a young guy, so we've got to take advantage of that.”