The only serious injury Gabe Ervin has ever experienced came on a simple jump cut. A play he’s run hundreds of times.
The Nebraska running back took a handoff under a hot September sun at Oklahoma and saw a hole late in the third quarter. Then his right knee gave out. Just like that, a promising freshman season ended on crutches as he limped toward seven months of rehabilitation from an ACL tear.
On Thursday — 320 days after going down — Ervin was feeling good.
The 19-year-old is “thicker,” he said, up to around 215-20 pounds after playing around 205-10 during his debut campaign. Most importantly: He’s 100% recovered. A few fall practices were all he needed to rediscover his mojo and his old decisive self in a crowd of would-be tacklers.
“I just had to trust myself again,” Ervin said. “Once I started to trust it again like Gabe Ervin runs and how that is, I was there.”
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The Buford, Georgia, product has the speed to rival any of Nebraska’s six scholarship backs. He impressed his new position coach, Bryan Applewhite, from the sidelines last spring. If the temptation to disengage or sulk was there, Ervin didn’t show it. He’s not showing any signs of rust now as he battles the likes of junior college transfer Anthony Grant, fourth-year veteran Rahmir Johnson and big-bodied Jaquez Yant for carries.
“It’s been like he’s practiced all spring,” Applewhite said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with his work ethic and his toughness. I was a little concerned (about him) coming off a knee injury as a running back but he has not wavered one bit.”
Ervin was the talk of fall camp a year ago, eventually becoming the first true freshman running back to start a season opener in the modern era of Nebraska football. He played in four games overall, turning 37 totes into 124 yards and two touchdowns while making a pair of catches for 6 yards.
He’s a better player now, the redshirt freshman believes. Bigger, which will help break tackles and churn out extra yards. Smarter after being in college for 18 months. The improvement he’s seen from the offensive line and schemes he’s been part of under offensive coordinator Mark Whipple have him as optimistic as ever that the offense is primed to score points in bunches.
“Now I feel like I’m more lateral; I can make more lateral cuts, I’m more shifty,” Ervin said. “That’s what I’ve been focusing on is making people miss at the second level and getting one-on-one with that safety, making him miss and trying to get the touchdown.”
In Ervin’s mind, he’s closer to being a leader than a rookie. Asked what true freshmen backs like Ajay Allen and Emmett Johnson need to do to make quick impacts, he replied, “pay attention told older guys and mimic what we do.” Work hard. Study film. The results will take care of themselves on the field.
NU has a scrimmage this weekend. The season begins three weeks after that, the ultimate litmus test for months of recovery and improvement. Ervin is confident his body of work will stand out.
The drive isn’t new for the teenager who grew up in Alabama as an avid fan of the Tide. The middle of three sons to an IT worker and claims adjuster loves the grind — he would wake up daily in high school by asking himself who he is going to be. The former three-star prospect became Nebraska’s only scholarship running back in the 2021 class, choosing the Huskers out of his final five that included Georgia and Michigan State.
He turned that effort toward his rehab for much of the offseason, working closely with head football athletic trainer Mark Mayer to get his knee back to pre-injury form. Now he’s facing ahead — pad level low, legs churning — with eyes downfield on whatever comes next.
“Freak accident but now I’m just moving forward and trying to not think about that and be the best I can be on and off the field,” Ervin said. “The best version of myself.”