Talk about love at first hike.
“I probably saw so many train wrecks, he was like an oasis,” Dan Shonka said of former Nebraska Cornhuskers tackle Nick Gates. “The No. 1 thing an offensive lineman has to do in the NFL is pass protect, and he can do that. And God knows we need tackles.”
If you’re wondering why Gates, who started a Huskers-record 26 straight games at left tackle, elected earlier this month to forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft, start there. It’s simple math: Weak Tackle Class + Good Film = Opportunity.
“I’ve looked at the tackles in the country, and quantity doesn’t mean quality,” chuckled Shonka, a longtime NFL scout and now the general manager at Ourlads.com. “And the tackles out there are not very good, really. But hey, you’ve got to play with what’s there — or, rather, the NFL has got to play with them.
“He might get kicked into a guard. I’d put a third- or fourth-round grade on him.”
In other words, there’s a damn good shot that the 6-foot-5 Las Vegas native will be the first Big Red player off the board in April. In fact, the last time Shonka felt this good about a Huskers tackle was more than two years ago — and Alex Lewis worked out like gangbusters for the Baltimore Ravens.
‘That’s one thing that will help Gates — he can move his feet. He can redirect.’
— Longtime NFL scout Dan Shonka on former Nebraska tackle Nick Gates
“I was one of the few who liked Lewis when he came out of there,” Shonka said of the former Nebraska tackle, who was tapped by the Ravens in the fourth round of the 2016 draft. “I got my buddy to draft him in Baltimore, and he started as a rookie.
“[Gates] may be a little short. I hate to always use the measureables, but a lot of times these offensive line guys, they want 6-6, 35-inch, 36-inch arms.”
They also want guys who can move, guys who can punch and play in space. At 295 pounds, Gates is an athlete who just happens to be built like a strip mall. He was a standout pitcher in high school who, as a junior at Bishop Gorman in Vegas, hit .372 while posting a 3-1 record and a 3.64 ERA.
Quick feet and fast hands can play anywhere.
“He can redirect,” Shonka said. “A guy’s got to be able to change direction when a guy gets by them a little bit and put them off. That’s one thing that will help Gates — he can move his feet. He can redirect. He’s got good hand placement, uses his hands well.”
Of course, he’s been humbled, too, such as when Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett decided to try to use him as a turnstile at the 2016 Music City Bowl:
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) January 20, 2017
Barnett parlayed that performance into a first-round selection — No. 14 overall — by Philadelphia in the 2017 NFL Draft in April. Now it’s Gates’ turn.
— Nick Gates (@nickgates77) January 2, 2018
The picture painted by Pro Football Focus of No. 68’s Huskers tenure is a bit of a mixed bag, with more success at right tackle as a redshirt freshman than the last two seasons protecting the blind side. The Nevada native posted an overall grade of 81.6 last fall and was charged by the scouting site with 2 sacks, 7 hits and 18 hurries surrendered.
That was an notable improvement over an injury-riddled sophomore season of 2016 (72.7 overall grade, 33 total pressures allowed) but a dip from a healthier 2015 on the right side of the line (83.6 overall grade).
— Chris Hoffer (@PFF_Hoffer) July 26, 2016
Nebraska RT Nick Gates is the highest-graded returning tackle in the Big Ten. In pass protection he yielded 0 sacks and just one hit in 2015
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) August 23, 2016
PFF Week 11 – B1G Team of the Week – Offense pic.twitter.com/znVzw82I4d
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 14, 2017
Still, the game in Nashville aside, the good days outweighed the bad ones. There will be questions about the abuse delivered by Barnett and Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, of course. And questions about the ankle injury during his sophomore season that seemed to slow the mobility by half a step.
But you can’t fake the finishing on film. And you can’t fake nasty, either:
Nick Gates 👏🏻👏🏻 pic.twitter.com/bAu0TCj8GB
— Stetson (@Stetson_GBR) September 11, 2016
Shilique Calhoun said that a dirty play from Nick Gates threw him off on Saturday. Here’s the play (Gates is at RT) pic.twitter.com/22K6jMohrB
— Josh Peterson (@joshtweeterson) November 11, 2015
“He can move well,” Shonka said. “I like the way he plays. He was stout. He got driven back some in different games, so he needs to get a little stronger so he can anchor better.
“But in regards to the pass protection, moving his feet, I thought they did a nice job with that. He got a little wide in his base, at times, [but] that’s coaching. That’s easily correctable.”