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Nebraska Begins Football

Nebraska offensive tackle Nick Gates enters the 2017 season as a three-year starter.

There's plenty to like about Nick Gates as a football player.

Start with his size (6-foot-5, 300 pounds) and athleticism (he threw 92 mph as a star pitcher in high school).

Include this: He can be refreshingly blunt in his self-critiques.

The Nebraska junior offensive tackle was in self-critique mode last week as he discussed his performance this month during preseason camp.

"I feel my camp personally has gone really well other than the first probably five practices," Gates said. "I was leaning really bad. I had crappy hands. But the last couple (of weeks), I felt really, really good. I mean, my ankles are good. Knees are good. I've definitely worked on my technique a lot."

Gates, of course, has a critical job as the left tackle who protects right-handed quarterback Tanner Lee's blindside. So, regarding Gates' tendency to lean forward in his pass-blocking technique, well, it simply can't happen very often. Gates understands Lee must be protected as if he were a fine jewel, such is the transfer QB's value to Nebraska's hopes of being a serious threat to win the Big Ten.

As a quarterback protector and leader on a veteran Husker line — five players started at least four games last season — Gates knows he has to be consistently tough-minded and mindful of technique.

"When you lean, your hands are bad and you miss," he said. "Guys just rip right around the edge."

You probably can predict where this conversation is headed — to last year's Music City Bowl. Gates takes you there himself, saying his technique was sub-par Dec. 30, when Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett owned Gates — by Gates' own admission.

Barnett, selected 14th overall by Philadelphia in the NFL Draft in April, was a constant presence in the Huskers' backfield.

It was startling to watch.

"That definitely taught me a lesson," Gates said during the spring. "I think I needed that lesson to be taught, too. I think it was good for me in the end."

His honest assessments indicate a willingness to learn from his struggles.

It's a sign of maturity.

"He's had some really good moments in practice," Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said Thursday. "When he trusts his technique, he's doing great. And that's what it comes down to. It's all about what you do."

A native of Las Vegas, Gates said he's stronger physically than he's ever been as he enters his third season as a starter. He helps lead a line that is operating with a sense of urgency.

"(Cavanaugh) has picked it up a lot on us since last year," Gates said. "Last year he was kind of laid back. He expected a lot out of us, but he wasn't on us like he is now. He definitely comes out and expects a lot more energy. ..."

A right tackle in 2015, Gates started 10 games, missing three in the middle of the season because of a high ankle sprain. Last season, he started all 13 games at left tackle, but said he was only about 70 percent healthy late in the year because of a bad ankle.

He said the injury was no excuse for his poor showing in the bowl game. He gives due credit to Barnett, who already has two sacks and a handful of quarterback hurries in the Eagles' two preseason games even though he's not a starter.

Gates knows opponents will watch that bowl video and try to exploit his flaws. In fact, he has to know that on Sept. 2, when Nebraska opens the season against Arkansas State, Red Wolves pass-rush demon Ja'von Rolland-Jones will be eager to duplicate Barnett's success.

The 6-2, 245-pound Rolland-Jones last season recorded a whopping 20.5 tackles for loss, including 13.5 sacks, for a top-30 defense. If Gates is looking to redeem himself, here's a chance right out of the gate.

"This summer definitely helped my confidence," he said. "Learning my technique again. Learning to trust it and not having a panic sense, as they call it."

You hope Gates understands that even the best tackles in the NFL lose battles to pass-rushers on occasion. The key is to avoid panicking and letting a setback affect ensuing plays.

One thing to remember about Gates: Even as a third-year starter at Nebraska, he still has plenty to learn. He didn't start playing football until he was a freshman in high school, having grown up playing mostly baseball. With his 92-mph fastball, Gates said he drew interest from a couple of junior colleges.

But he also distinguished himself as a football player at powerhouse Bishop Gorman High School, receiving scholarship offers from the likes of Alabama, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oregon, Washington and UCLA. As a sophomore, he was thrust into varsity action when senior Ronnie Stanley was injured. Stanley, of course, went on to star as a left tackle for Notre Dame before being selected sixth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Cavanaugh, while at Oregon State, recruited Gates hard. The coach said he liked Gates' toughness and athleticism, and still does.

"I'm excited to watch him play this year, obviously," Cavanaugh said. "He's worked hard. He's developed. I'm really excited to watch, really, all of the guys. But Nick's doing a great job."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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