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Trio of seniors giving Blackshirts a serious punch at each level

November 5, 2016 GMT

LINCOLN — Nate Gerry doesn’t like to think about this being the last mile here, but there are no mind tricks capable of escaping it.

Better take the advice of his elders.

“I try to enjoy the moments that I have in the locker room, because that’s one thing I hear from all the guys coming back, is the moments they miss the most are those ones in the locker room,” Gerry said.

The senior safety was open to reflection this week as his Nebraska team gets ready for a game against Ohio State few people outside the state, and maybe even outside that Husker locker room, think it can win.

What matters though? Nebraska players, bolstered by a senior class that tight end Trey Foster this week called “the heartbeat” of the team, think they can.

As Foster put it, the team has been through “hell and back,” including true tragedy with the loss of teammate Sam Foltz, so there’s no reason for it to not show up with added purpose each time it steps on the field.

It doesn’t hurt either that the Blackshirts right now are getting inspired play by at least one senior on each level of their defense. In recent weeks, defensive tackle Kevin Maurice, linebacker Josh Banderas and Gerry have played what most would consider the best football of their careers.

Doing the sometimes under-appreciated grunt work, Maurice was described as an “all star” this week by head coach Mike Riley. Banderas has 32 of his 51 tackles in the last three games. Gerry has 50 tackles, four interceptions and, it’s quite clear, a serious focus on writing his final chapter here the correct way.

“It’s my last year playing football for Nebraska,” Gerry said. “I put a lot of heart and soul into this place. The only way for me to go out and express it is on the field. I’m an emotional guy. I like to wear my emotions on my sleeves. I like to show everybody about it.”

He’s part of a secondary that a year ago ranked as one of the worst in the country against the pass. There would have been little hope of this defense standing up a team such as the Buckeyes last season.

Now? Well, now the Huskers are a top-20 defense, having picked off quarterbacks a nation-leading 15 times.

Now Gerry is showing up on national lists as a candidate for the most outstanding defensive player in college football. It was announced this week he is one of 18 players still in the running for the Chuck Bednarik Award.

Quite a separation from last year, when instructions to him from defensive coordinator Mark Banker were sometimes lost in translation. Literally lost in translation.

“It took me a while to understand him,” Gerry said. “Some of his jokes, I have no idea. He was saying some stuff out there where I was just like, ‘You just got to tell us because that doesn’t make any sense to us.’ A lot of us, Aaron (Williams) is 19, 20 years old, and (freshman) JoJo (Domann) and those guys, I’m looking at them like, ‘I barely get it. I wonder what these dudes are thinking about.’”

Gerry then dropped a line that shows how far his relationship with Banker has evolved, far enough to the point the safety can now joke about his coach, “He’s a goober.”

Gerry is second on the team in tackles, only one behind Banderas.

What jumps out here is, five games into this season, Banderas had just 18 tackles.

What’s happened besides Banderas also joining the special-teams units and being a madman there?

“I’m untouched,” Banderas said. “You’ve Mike (Rose-Ivey) sticking his head in there, taking up two or three blockers. Dedrick (Young) doing the same thing. K-Mo (Maurice) taking up double teams with Mick (Stoltenberg) and the ends getting after it. … I just happen to be the benefactor of my guys doing my job. So it’s more of a team thing than it is me, I think.”

It’ll take a total team effort to get a win in a hostile stadium that seats around 105,000 fans who will have all day to build themselves into a “juiced-up” night game crowd.

Going into an environment like that, you better be a team with a strong connection, with senior leaders doing their part to keep composure.

Relationships that have been built for years off the field can pay dividends in stressful times.

“I think we learned so much about each other even if we didn’t really want to,” Gerry said. “I think some of the circumstances that we got put in, we kind of had to figure out each other. I just think the bond we have is pretty crazy.”

He recalled how when he arrived here from South Dakota, he would have never guessed that Cethan Carter, from New Orleans, would end up being his roommate and one of his best friends.

Carter, another one of those seniors, has missed the last three games with an elbow injury but is expected to play some role in Saturday’s game. While sitting out, he was getting encouragement from other seniors.

“I know for a fact he’s hungry to get out there again any way he can,” Foster said. “I told him ‘We need you, we want you out there. Get better as fast as you can.’”

The close-knit bunch now will attempt to deliver one of the biggest wins for Husker football in recent memory.

The sixth-ranked Buckeyes may have some flaws, they may be beatable, but winning at The Horseshoe is no question a serious challenge for the Huskers.

Well, some of us might call it a challenge. Maurice used another word.

“We see it as a big opportunity,” he said.

As Gerry fielded a question about all the four- and five-star talent the Buckeyes have on their roster, he respectfully acknowledged it before standing up for his own brothers.

“At the end of the day, we’re a darn good football team, too,” Gerry said. “We’ve got a lot of players, too, and on the other side they’re saying the same thing about us.”

You know those locker-room moments Gerry wants to savor? Think of the one that could be had Saturday night if an underdog team can make 105,000 people go silent.