Ball-hawk Gerry leading No. 9 Huskers' defensive improvement
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) It was spring practice in 2015, Nathan Gerry's first with Nebraska's new coaching staff, when defensive coordinator Mark Banker pulled him aside one day and told him he should have been able to make a difficult play.
''He almost bit my head off,'' Banker recalled. ''He said, `How am I supposed to make that play?'''
''Because you're Nate Gerry,'' Banker replied.
Sure, Gerry's reputation preceded him in the changeover of coaching staffs. He started every game in 2014 and was the team's defensive co-MVP.
Even though he led the Cornhuskers in tackles and interceptions last year, Gerry admits he struggled to learn Banker's pass-coverage system. Banker has taken over coaching the safeties this season, and Gerry has thrived.
He has four interceptions, including two on back-to-back series last week against Wisconsin, and his seven tackles for loss are second-most on the team. This week he was among three Big Ten players named semifinalists for the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose sixth-ranked Buckeyes (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) host the No. 9 Huskers (7-1, 4-1) on Saturday night, said his co-offensive coordinator, Tim Beck, told him all about Gerry. Beck was the OC at Nebraska until Bo Pelini's firing in 2014.
''He's a draftable player, very draftable player, and just real fast and physical,'' Meyer said.
With at least five games left in his career, the senior from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is one interception from tying Dana Stephenson (1967-69) for most picks in a career (14) by a Nebraska player. Gerry already holds the school record for career tackles for loss by a defensive back with 19, and he needs five more to break the single-season record of 11 by Ciante Evans (2010-13).
''Me being a kid from South Dakota, given the opportunity from coach Pelini, just being able to get on the field and playing one of my years here, I thought that would have been cool for me,'' Gerry said. ''I'm pretty excited for myself. I think it's obviously a cool accomplishment. There is a lot more that needs to be done for this football team.''
Gerry is in his second year as a team captain and leader of a secondary that has allowed only seven pass plays of 30 yards or longer through eight games. Last season, the Huskers gave up 26 in 13 games.
Gerry's first two interceptions of the season came against Wyoming, and he had a team-high nine tackles the following week against Oregon.
He was even better the next week in his eight-tackle game against Northwestern. He made one of those exceptional plays Banker has come to expect from him when he walked up to line to cover the running back. He took two steps forward after the snap but noticed the quarterback looking to pass to a receiver cutting across the field behind him. Gerry backed up, stretched out and swatted away the pass with his left hand.
''Saved a touchdown,'' Banker said.
In last week's overtime loss at Wisconsin , Gerry was playing center field when Alex Hornibrook threw a ball right to him. Gerry showed excellent instincts on the second pick, getting in front of the intended receiver as the right-handed Bart Houston awkwardly threw back toward the middle of the field while moving left.
''When it's pass coverage,'' Badgers coach Paul Chryst said, ''he's where he should be. He's an opportunist.''
Banker said Gerry's game is similar to those of some of the top safeties he coached at Oregon State, including Sabby Piscitelli, a second-round draft pick in 2007 who played five years in the NFL.
''I'm pleased with some of the things he's done, obviously. At the same time, there were three plays in the last game that I thought he could have made and made a difference on,'' Banker said. ''He along with everybody else, there's a ton of room for improvement.''
On that, Banker gets no argument from Gerry, who said he's determined to finish strong for the Big Ten West-leading Huskers.
''Last year I didn't fulfill my role how I wanted to,'' he said. ''This year I've flipped the switch a little bit.''
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