LINCOLN, Neb. — Sophomore OT Nick Gates was always going to play last Saturday against Purdue.
“I knew it all week,” Gates said after practice on Wednesday. “It was just convincing the coaches.”
His right ankle had nearly an entire roll of tape on it after practice. He sprained it after the Indiana game, which was also the first time the other tackle, David Knevel, came out of a game with the same injury.
But the two have the same mentality. They’re playing this Saturday, whether anyone else thinks they should or not.
“I’m getting ready for the game like I’m starting,” Knevel said.
The offensive line is a focal point this week because of Wisconsin’s staunch run defense, and the fact that the Nebraska offensive line has shuffled around all season because of injuries. Senior RG Tanner Farmer was out early in the year with a knee injury. Gates and Knevel are battling with ankle injuries. Senior C Dylan Utter has a dislocated finger.
In nearly every game, a backup has replaced a starter, or a backup has gotten injured and the linemen have had to shuffle around to accomodate.
Here are some realistic scenarios for Saturday at Wisconsin.
This is who is slotted to start, according to the depth chart released on Monday: Gates, Knevel, senior LG Sam Hahn, Utter and Farmer.
And this is how the backups line up on the depth chart, with sophomore Cole Conrad, senior Corey Whitaker and redshirt freshman Michael Decker.
In theory, Conrad could replace Gates or Knevel, as he has in the past, either as the starter or if one of them goes down in the game. If Gates couldn’t go for some reason, the line would look like this:
Or if Knevel couldn’t go, it could look like this:
Simple enough. But, it gets tricky if Gates and Knevel can’t play on Saturday, or play and get injured, which are real possibilities considering both have had heavily wrapped ankles at practice this week and could hardly move against Purdue.
If Gates and Knevel are out Saturday, Hahn can move over for Gates or Knevel, which he’s done in the past. That means Conrad would take the place of the other tackle, and Whitaker would step in for Hahn.
But, if Gates starts and goes down, and Conrad fills in for him, and then Knevel goes down later in the game, Hahn would switch from left guard to right tackle in-game and Whitaker would fill in for Hahn.
And then there’s Farmer, who had a knee injury earlier this year. Hahn replaced him at right guard.
The question becomes: if Gates and Knevel can’t go on Saturday, or get injured, and Farmer goes down, what then? Whitaker likely replaces Hahn, who would fill in for Farmer, but then who takes the right tackle position?
Head hurt yet?
This shuffle has already hurt Nebraska.
“We’ve been a little inconsistent up there,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “We’ve been trading off with some guys. We’re a little banged up. The one thing about the offensive line is you play as one and that’s the trouble of having guys in and out a lot and you suffer a little bit.”
Nebraska couldn’t run against Purdue, the worst Big Ten rush defense this season, and could hardly run against Indiana the previous week.
While Farmer is rated the fifth best guard in the conference, and Gates is ninth among tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, Knevel and Hahn are struggling. Knevel, according to Pro Football Focus, has given up 11 total pressures, and Hahn is the lowest-graded Big Ten starter regardless of position, most likely because he’s played nearly every position at some point this season.
The simple solution is plugging in more linemen, but Nebraska doesn’t seem to want to do that because of a lack of experienced linemen.
The Huskers have 13 other offensive linemen on the team: five are true freshmen that Nebraska probably wants to redshirt, three are redshirt freshmen, four are inexperienced upperclassmen and Jerald Foster was hurt before the season.
Another factor is the way the linemen think, Utter said.
Gates and Knevel, they don’t want to let down the team.
“As offensive line, you never want to let your teammates down and I think that kind of fuels that fire,” Utter said. “If they can go, they’ll go. They want to help us out as much as they can.”
The offensive line is pivotal this week, coach Mike Riley said on Monday.
“How healthy they can get in a week will be important,” Riley said. “My goal is to try to help them get healthy, to feel as good as they can by the weekend.”
Gates isn’t super worried.
He gets it. He’s playing hurt, so is Knevel. But if anyone goes down, he knows Conrad or Whitaker will step up.
“We definitely trust them,” Gates said.
Gates got some flak on Twitter for playing last Saturday, even though he was hurt. But like he said, it’s never a question. He’s going to play.
“It’s whatever,” Gates said. “It matters what’s going on here, and in the locker room.”