LINCOLN — It's no small scar on Nebraska guard Jake Cotton's left knee. A half-foot long. Could be an inch wide. The remains of an October 2011 surgery to repair ACL and MCL tears. An injury that can be the widow-maker for some college careers.
Not for Cotton. Eighteen months and countless rehab sessions later, the junior is working with the No. 1 offense at left guard and describing his favorite play, where he's a lead pulling guard on a power play around left end.
“I like getting out in space and showing my athleticism,” Cotton said with a laugh Wednesday. “If you can call it that.”
Out on the edge, looking for targets to punch up — that's where Cotton likes to be. And that's where coaches and teammates want him.
“He's always running around hitting people,” said left tackle Jeremiah Sirles, Cotton's roommate for road games. “Sometimes it's questionable, but that's kind of who he is and what kind of attitude he brings to the table.”
Said offensive line coach John Garrison: “I have to remind him every day: If you get in a fight, you're getting kicked out of practice, and we don't want to do that. He's one of those guys you have to reel in a little bit. You'd rather have that than the other.”
And Cotton: “I think I'm an emotional guy, but we have fun out there.”
It's earned the Lincoln Southeast graduate comparisons to former Husker guard Ricky Henry. Cotton — who began his NU career in 2010 as a scout team defensive lineman who squared off against Henry daily — said he considered the comparison an honor.
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Henry was hard-nosed, he said. If he's seen that way, too? All the better.
What Garrison needs now from Barney Cotton's middle son is the polish and consistency Henry showed in his last two years, when he started 28 straight games and won All-Big 12 honors as a senior in 2010.
Garrison reviews film to pick out things he wants his linemen to improve. He relays them in meetings. Jake Cotton's been getting almost daily pointers, Garrison said. And Cotton goes out before practice to fix those mistakes.
“He's 110 percent all-in,” Garrison said.
Cotton showed that in January, when he helped recruit several offensive linemen — including junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo, who could challenge him for playing time — to sign with the 2013 recruiting class. The three who visited Nebraska on Jan. 18 — Kondolo, junior college transfer Matt Finnin and freshman Dwayne Johnson — eventually committed to the Huskers.
“It was a no-brainer,” Cotton said. “I wanted to go out and help and make our team better.”
Sirles said Cotton's already done that. The chemistry between the two — plus center Cole Pensick — is strong. All of the likely starters on the Husker line — unless Finnin or Kondolo crack it in fall — are guys who have been in the program for at least three years.
“We're such a cohesive group,” Sirles said. “This is the first time since I've been here that we've been older guys. We're finally the veteran offensive line we've been hoping to get. We may start four seniors and a junior. To finally start all upperclassmen will really help.”
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