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Transitioning to college football can be a struggle, even for Nebraska's top recruits

Transitioning to college football can be a struggle, even for Nebraska's top recruits

Braxton Clark speaks after practice Mon, Aug 16th

LINCOLN — Noa Pola-Gates was icing on one of the best Nebraska football recruiting classes in a decade. The four-star prospect ranked No. 116 nationally by Rivals in 2019 picked the Huskers over USC, Arizona State, Alabama and others.

Pola-Gates then arrived at Nebraska and learned what nearly every blue-chip or chip-on-the-shoulder recruit discovers when they join a college football team. It’s so much more complex than high school.

“When I first got here, it was kind of a struggle for me because I didn’t really know football too well,” the 6-foot, 180-pound third-year redshirt freshman safety said Monday.

Pola-Gates knew football well enough to dominate at Williams Field High School in Gilbert, Arizona, where he had 57 tackles, five interceptions and seven pass breakups as a senior. He made the All-American and Polynesian Bowls too.

But since his high school coach allowed him to roam the defense, go fast and make plays, Pola-Gates quickly realized that college football defenders must digest far more details and play with more nuance. Facing NU’s receivers in practice provided Pola-Gates with a rude awakening.

“They moved me to corner,” Pola-Gates said. “Playing against JD Spielman and Mike Williams — all those fast guys, how twitchy they were with their routes — it was just a different game. I had to adjust.”

Outside linebacker Caleb Tannor — a four-star signing day coup for Nebraska in 2018 — also had to adjust after playing as an underweight true freshman who had just started lifting weights. Tannor said in 2019 that he'd get mad because he wasn't playing up to his full potential, even though he expected to be on the field early in his career.

Two years later, defensive coordinator Erik Chinander said Tannor has figured out the game, even if he could stand to put on a little more weight.

“He’s figuring out his body, he’s figuring out his position,” Chinander said Monday of Tannor (6-3, 225). “He knows what he can and can’t do. You come in as a highly-rated kid out of high school, you’ve got to figure out what you can get away with in college — and what you can’t get away with.”

In Pola-Gates’ case, he couldn’t get away with much. He had to align just so on each play. He had to play different coverages the way they're meant to be played. He can’t freelance.

He and his coaches agreed safety — not corner — was the best fit for him. Pola-Gates is now a backup safety again behind sixth-year seniors Marquel Dismuke and Deontai Williams.

“I’m trying to be a sponge around the vets and learn as much as I can,” Pola-Gates said.

Pola-Gates also credits defensive backs Coach Travis Fisher, who has praised Pola-Gates’ improvement over the last year. Pola-Gates has taken a jump in mentally applying what he knows to his movements. The athlete is still there.

“My coverage has gotten way better,” Pola-Gates said. “And learning run fits and run gaps, that as well.”

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