Mikai Gbayor knew he was hurt, but he also knew his team needed help.
Back in November, Irvington High was a little more than halfway through its season in New Jersey when Gbayor suffered a right knee injury.
He tried to convince the coaching staff he could still play. It quickly became apparent that he couldn’t, so Gbayor put his mind to assisting his teammates in other ways.
“I didn’t leave on the stretcher, I stayed the whole game, helped the other linebackers that were next up,” he told the Journal Star this week. “They were young and so I just wanted to continue to be a leader and help win.
“That’s just something I felt like I had to do. At first, I wanted to get back in, trying to be tough and not knowing what the injury was. I felt like I could do it, but coaches told me ‘no,’ so I found another way to be a leader.”
The Nebraska inside linebacker commit was at that point just a couple of weeks shy of putting pen to paper and signing his national letter of intent. As it turned out, he had torn the ACL in his right knee and not long after had surgery that ended his season.
The Blue Knights finished their season 7-2 and Gbayor was named the best linebacker in the state and the No. 5 player overall by NJ.com. Here’s what the outlet wrote about him, noting that he had 53 tackles, eight sacks and two forced fumbles in Irvington’s first six games: “He’s an explosive run-and-hit backer who can get sideline-to-sideline, blitz from the interior and has made strides in covering down the field. He’s also humble and a team leader.”
“It’s a blessing,” Gbayor said of the lofty ranking. “We didn’t have an offseason, (due to COVID), no weight room or anything, but just to get out on the field and put in some great work, that’s all God right there.”
The past few months, he’s mostly spent working out and rehabbing his knee as he prepares to arrive in Lincoln in mid-to-late June. New Jersey schools finish later than some, so Gbayor said he’s trying to get his work done as soon as possible and get to campus as early as he can.
“I’ve been recovering and working out and it’s been getting a lot better,” Gbayor said. “It’s strengthening and I’ll be back in no time. I’ve just been focusing on getting bigger, stronger and faster and getting ready to play at a big school.
“I’ve been testing a lot better. Every time I go to (physical therapy), I test a little better. They tell me I look better. I feel like I’m slowly getting there, picking up my activity. I’m getting back to cutting more, being aggressive. It’s just coming back to me and I feel good.”
Rehab work can be a long, lonely endeavor, but Gbayor sounds like a guy who’s looking forward to the grind of college football.
“Definitely just learning the playbook and getting comfortable in the program, transitioning from high school to college,” he said. “I don’t know what that’s like, but I’m going to find out real soon. Getting comfortable with the early mornings and late nights, staying and studying film. Our school closes early, but I’m pretty sure you get to college and you can study until whenever.”
When he gets to campus, he’ll be joining two other freshmen inside linebackers in midyear enrollees Seth Malcom and Randolph Kpai and fellow June arriver Wynden Ho’ohuli, who could end up either inside or outside for the Huskers.
Gbayor said he’s regularly in contact with a fellow former New Jersey high school standout in running back Rahmir Johnson. He also said he talks a lot with with Kpai and Ho’ohuli along with incoming freshman wide receiver Kamonte Grimes.
“We talk about how we’ve got to lead the team. No matter what age, one day we’re going to have to be the ones that step up. I talk to Kamonte a lot. That’s my guy. Great kid.”
Gbayor, Grimes, Ho’ohuli and the other spring enrollees — tight end A.J. Rollins, defensive lineman Jailen Weaver, defensive backs Koby Bretz and Malik Williams and wide receivers Latrell Neville and Shawn Hardy II — will arrive on campus over the next few weeks, depending on high school graduations, but there aren’t expected to be any snags regarding academics or any other eligibility matters at this point.
“It’s going to be such a blessing just to be joining a program like Nebraska, so I’m very excited and can’t wait,” Gbayor said.
Spring post-op: Catch up on our position-by-position look at where the Huskers stand after spring
What did we learn from the Huskers' spring? What about the things we still need to find out? Plus, a look at "stock-risers" and more.
The series continues with offense this week. No better place to start than quarterback, right?
NU's safeties benefited from the extra year of eligibility, as Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams both return for sixth seasons.
Cam Taylor-Britt has ascended into a face-of-the-program type player and perhaps the best player on the roster. But is there enough depth?
Luke Reimer, Chris Kolarevic and Nick Henrich are a strong trio at the top. But this is the Big Ten. Who can be the fourth man? The fifth?
You followed along all spring. Who's your standout player from the outside linebacker group? How about the "stock-riser?" Compare notes with us.
Defensive line coach Tony Tuioti said he has at least six players he can trust and potentially seven, but it’s unclear if any of NU’s next wave of players will crack the rotation this fall.
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