INDIANAPOLIS — In some ways, the five Nebraska players at the NFL combine have become the stepchildren of Huskers football.
Questions revolve around the negatives of a 4-8 season in 2017 or the positives of new coach Scott Frost more than how their specific skill sets translate to the next level. Here they are preparing for their ultimate job interview and instead they’re stuck in a miniature football purgatory.
Unfortunately, that’s what happens when teams underperform at tradition-rich Nebraska and there’s an offseason coaching change. The tendency is to quickly bury the past and hope flowers sprout in an instant.
Looking both back and ahead, these combine players recall both the tough days last fall and describe what they see from the future Cornhuskers. They blended their past disappointment with hope for a brighter future.
“It was an up-and-down year,” quarterback Tanner Lee said. “I learned a lot from it, though. It was a great experience to get to play for Nebraska in front of the great fans. I learned a lot about myself, I made a lot of great friends, great teammates, guys that I will be friends with forever.”
Living in a collapsing bubble
Lee was considered Nebraska’s savior of sorts last summer. He sat out as a transfer in 2016, and pro scouts raved over his arm strength and what he could bring the Cornhuskers. Fans’ hopes fizzled within three games when Nebraska stood 1-2 and Lee and had 7 interceptions — two of which were brought back for scores against Northern Illinois — and only 5 touchdown passes.
Rumors swirled that coach Mike Riley was on the way out. Lee had to keep himself and his teammates focused, which was difficult.
“I think it’s part of being a captain and a leader on the team,” Lee said. “You’ve got to be the one steering the ship. When things outside of the facility are going on, you can’t focus on that. You’ve got to keep the guys focused on playing hard. Just taking it day by day and trying to win games. That’s really all we focused on and everything we couldn’t control, we left it out of the way.”
It was just as difficult for other players on the team.
“I think after the third or fourth game we kind of knew what was going to go on,” tackle Nick Gates said. “But you can’t focus on that. You’ve got to focus on preparing and trying to win games, week in and week out. I think the coaching changes, getting fired, kind of helps me at the next level because you never know what’s going to happen in the NFL. A lot of adversity with that.”
Gates was recruited by coach Bo Pelini and redshirted during the 2014 season. Pelini’s firing surprised him, but Gates gained a close relationship with incoming offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh.
For Gates as a player, the move ultimately had positives.
“I didn’t expect Bo to get fired because he was winning 9, 10 games the last seven years,” Gates said. “That just wasn’t cutting it enough, I guess, for the fan base or our AD. When that happened, I was like, ‘Uh. I built a relationship with him for two years.’
“I don’t think I would have got the opportunity I got with the new staff if the old staff stayed. I’m happy about that looking back. It was good for me.”
As the season got worse, the noise grew louder. In Big Ten play, Nebraska finished 3-6 and was outscored by 124 points. Four times, the vaunted Blackshirts gave up at least 54 points against Big Ten opponents.
First, athletics director Shawn Eichorst was removed. Then speculation swirled that Riley was next. Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback, was in the midst of leading Central Florida to an unbeaten season, which had Huskers fans buzzing about those prospects.
“The fans can be kind of brutal at some times,” Gates said. “They were trying to get Riley out of there and get in Frost in there as fast as he could. But you can’t focus on that. You’ve just got to have tunnel vision and focus on the team and keep everybody together and keep everybody in the right direction. I think we as a team did that. The season didn’t end like we wanted it to, but I think as a group it kind made us a little closer and rely on each other, adjusting to adversity, coming together as a group and try to go the right way.”
“Being at Nebraska, I’ve had two different head coaches, three different defensive coordinators and about six different position coaches,” Nebraska defensive back Joshua Kalu said. “What I’ve learned is just got to put your head down and work. You can’t listen to all of those rumors. You can’t listen to all the negative feedback about your coaches and things like that. You’ve just got to go out there and ball and trust the game plan and execute.”
A day after Iowa pounded Nebraska 56-14, Riley was fired. A week later, Frost was hired as coach.
“It was a tough year,” Gates said. “We went 4-8. That’s not what anybody wanted. It’s a disappointment for us; 7-5 is a disappointing season for us, too.”
Moving on and looking ahead
Lee and Gates both had a year left of eligibility remaining at Nebraska. Lee, a pro-style talent, didn’t quite fit Frost’s offense, and Gates didn’t want to learn another system. Both declared for the draft.
The NFL advisory committee suggested Gates return to school, but he considered leaving since the Iowa game. Shortly after Christmas, Gates decided to turn pro.
“I just didn’t want to go through another coaching change,” Gates said. “I wanted to just learn another playbook and get used to coaches, so why not just go try the NFL and see how that works?
“I could always get better, stronger. But other than that, I thought I was ready.”
Lee already had transferred from Tulane and was in school for five years. While he picked up a sixth year of eligibility, Lee believed he was ready for the next step as well.
“If I would have stayed, it would have been different circumstances,” Lee said. “The circumstances being how they were, and many different ways, I had to make a decision I felt was best for me. So that’s what I did.”
All of the players continue to show affinity for Nebraska and the fans.
“It was a tough decision leaving my buddies, leaving Nebraska,” Gates said. “Nebraska is a great fan base. I wish nothing but the best for them.”
Scott Frost and the future
As the former Cornhuskers focus on their NFL futures, they keep one eye on the happenings in Lincoln to check on their former teammates and see how Frost is making progress.
Kicker Drew Brown has a deep history with Nebraska. His older brother, Kris, was a kicker at Nebraska in the 1990s and played alongside Frost. Now that Frost has returned, Drew Brown is confident the program will return to prominence.
“I wish I had another year to play for him,” Brown said. “Obviously I’m happy with where I’m at. He’s a legend in Nebraska football. He did amazing things at Oregon and at UCF. Now that he’s here, he’s going to require everyone on our team to put their best on the field every day and come every day to film room, weight room, whatever they’re doing with the mentality that they’re going to get better, that they’re going to be the best in the nation and he’s going to push everyone the way they need to be pushed.
“The best players, the most trustworthy guys are going to play. If you’re really talented and you don’t want to put in the work, and you can’t be trusted on the field, then you’re probably not going to play and I think that’s a good approach to have.”
Although Gates left early for the NFL, he sees good things happening at Nebraska.
“Frost and his staff are a great coaching staff,” Gates said. “I wish nothing but the best for them. I hope they go win the Big Ten championship and get to Indy and hopefully make the playoff this year. But I think in the next 2-3-4 years, they’ll definitely be competing for national championships and Big Ten championships. It was just time for me to get out of there because it would take a couple of years for that.”