Gabe Ervin Jr. was Nebraska’s starting running back until an injury prematurely ended his 2021 season. He returned to play in eight games last season, having been usurped by another former Buford, Georgia, standout, Anthony Grant. Now in Matt Rhule’s system, Ervin feels new again.
“I feel great out there. I feel like the old me, pursuing my dreams and taking a step forward to get better each and every day,” he said after the Red-White Game. “This summer I’m going to take a step forward, not for granted, I’m going to take it, hard work it and get ready for the season.”
What is the old him, exactly? How far is the redshirt sophomore turning the dial back? Back to Buford High, when he eclipsed 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and became first-team all-state. He’s encouraged now to feel how he did then—energetic and injury-free. “I feel bigger, faster, stronger and I just feel like an alpha on that field,” he described.
Ervin scored the first touchdown of the Red-White Game earlier this month. He took the handoff from Heinrich Haarberg and saw an opening in the defense. He called it an opportunity. Ervin gave defensive back Omar Brown a cut and firm stiff arm and burst across the goal line. The 7-yard run was his third all-time touchdown at Nebraska, spring games included, following his two-touchdown performance against Buffalo in 2021.
Ervin said the team bought into the staff’s vision for Nebraska football. Their collective NFL pedigree convinced any doubters. He explained the staff doesn’t “dangle” or harp on their NFL bonafides. Their attention to detail and instructions throughout workouts and practice underline the mentality and effort it takes to get to the next level. As each strives towards individual NFL aspirations, they meld closer together as a team.
“We had to buy into the process because this coaching staff is really experienced and they deal with a lot of NFL experience so you have no choice but to buy in,” Ervin said. “If you want to be great, if you want to pursue your dreams of the NFL you’ve got to listen to them. You’ve got to buy into the process. We’re going to take this thing into the fall and we’re going to be a good team.”
Matt Rhule and his coaching staff brought back some of the old Gabe in more ways than health. Offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield’s vision for the offensive scheme and involvement of the fullback reminds Ervin of the system he played in at Buford High. The Wolves still largely run out of the I formation and utilize a fullback to flare out of the backfield or, predominantly, spring the running back with a lead blocker. Ervin thrived in that before his 2021 knee injury and feels good in it once again.
There’s a collective effort among the coaching staff to establish the running game. The mentality spreads from Rhule himself, to Satterfield, to offensive line coach Donovan Raiola, running back coach E.J. Barthel and the players themselves. Ervin said the team progressed in the run game all spring and they want to “master it” through the summer. He believes they can become a great running team through the hard work that lies ahead.
Ervin is just one of many capable in Nebraska’s backfield. Rahmir Johnson led the Red-White Game with 35 rushing yards. Grant followed with 34 yards. Ervin had 20 while Ajay Allen added 18 and hybrid end Janiran Bonner added 12. It’s one of Nebraska’s deepest positions and, as they see it, could lead to overall improvement within the room.
“We challenge each other to be the best,” Ervin said. “One guy makes a great play, we try to make an even better play. That causes the competition in the room and that only makes the room better.”
They all run behind Nebraska’s offensive line, which showed improvement towards the end of the 2022 season. This year’s Red-White Game showed a vision of offensive line movement along with adding tight ends and fullbacks into run blocking schemes. Ervin noted the detail work Raiola is leading the line with and how excited he is by it. He’s also excited about the passing game. He likes Jeff Sims’ strength, athleticism and how he sees the field. In order to protect quarterbacks like Sims, Barthel is coaching strike hands and closing distance in pass protection. Ervin admitted it can be difficult bracing for a full-speed pass rusher but it’s what the team needs.
“I’m excited for this run game. Even the pass game, I’m excited to block for the ball and run the ball,” Ervin said. “We’re going to be a good team going forward.”