This story originally appeared in the Hail Varsity 2023 Husker Football Yearbook. Purchase your copy here.
At a glance, Gabe Ervin Jr. picked up just about where he left off.
The running back played the final game of his true freshman year in 2021 against Oklahoma. Despite a pedestrian stat line—nine rushes for 18 yards—he was continuing a respectable first season and further cementing his place in a crowded running back room.
Ervin had rebounded from a slow start, losing 6 yards on his first three carries but gaining 23 on the next three. On the ninth, he suffered what would be a season-ending knee injury while looking to head through another open lane.
Almost exactly one year later, Ervin was making plays again against the Sooners. This wasn’t his first game back, but it was the first time he had multiple carries since returning. He got the ball seven times in the second half, taking those for 70 yards.
However, this wasn’t a time of triumph. Besides the opponent and impressive carries, everything was different. Nebraska was being blown out, Ervin’s presence on the field being one signifier of that. The head coach and position coach had changed. Rather than being a promising true freshman, Ervin was deeper on the depth chart in his second year and still didn’t feel like himself physically. This was part of a low point.
“I got hurt, then the next season comes and there’s a whole new coaching staff,” Ervin said. “Then I’m building up my injury and they’re not really liking me, because they don’t really see my full potential . . . That was really my lowest time, my darkest time.”
Now, however, another change has brought new life, according to the third-year sophomore. Ervin feels he’s back at his physical best, ready to break out under head coach Matt Rhule. While he wouldn’t go as far as to refer to the past year as an enjoyable one, he still has positive reflections.
“You’re going to be in the dark, and you’re going to be in the light,” Ervin said. “But those moments when you’re in the dark, and you realize that you could be in the light one day, it’s what motivates you.”
Ervin came to Nebraska as a 3-star recruit from Buford High School in Georgia. He had back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons to end his time there, helping win state championships both years.
He said he always had a passion for football and thought he could succeed. The inclination toward the sport was something that, in large part, came from his family.
“My dad played ball; my mom was the type that, you know, the guys pick the girl. That was my mom,” Ervin said. “So, like, football just has always been in my family.”
That extends to his brothers, and his younger one, Ethan Ervin, is a running back in the class of 2025 at Buford. The two made for a strong backyard-football duo in their childhood, according to Ervin, often dominating in games against neighbors. At the time, they knew they were talented, and continue to have a strong relationship.
The competitive spirit between the two persists. In the middle of talking positively about their relationship, Ervin shifts gears to quickly note he’s the better player, despite his younger sibling’s wish to surpass him. Praise resumes after that.
“Just seeing his capability and seeing what he does on the field as a running back, and me putting myself in that position where he used to be, it just makes me smile,” Gabe said. “Because I know he’s gonna get there. I know he’s going to be where I am one day.”
Ervin’s college career began with his commitment to Nebraska, head coach Scott Frost and position coach Ryan Held. Despite the program’s struggles in the seasons prior to 2021, running backs such as Devine Ozigbo and Dedrick Mills found some level of success.
Heading into his freshman year, however, there was no frontrunner for the starting job. The top-producing returner had 62 yards on 24 carries in 2020. As a result, Ervin was set to compete with a group mostly of unproven young players and USC transfer Markese Stepp.
Held clearly liked what he saw from Ervin, as he got the starting nod for the opening game against Illinois. It was a rare sight, a true freshman opening in the backfield for the Huskers.
“He’s a student of the game, loves football,” Held said in a press conference weeks before the season opener. “So he studies and it matters to him. That’s the thing, it matters, and that’s why he’s put himself in position to be a contender for the spot.”
Ervin got the first running back carry in three of the first four games that season, but it was still somewhat a committee approach. Stepp, Sevion Morrison and Rahmir Johnson each was a significant part of the backfield rotation.
Against Buffalo, Stepp had the first rush but Ervin ended up with his best game of the year, taking 10 carries for 56 yards and a pair of short touchdowns. The following week he was injured in the Oklahoma game.
Ervin was back in time to play in 2022, but knew he wasn’t at his best physically. That didn’t stop him from competing, but the injury was compounded by staff changes. After the team went 3-9 in 2021, a last-ditch effort to get Frost’s tenure off the ground saw a number of position-coach changes, including Held being replaced by Bryan Applewhite.
Two roster additions—Anthony Grant and Ajay Allen—became the top two backs, with the team mostly relying on Grant after Allen was injured. Ervin played in eight games, carrying 20 times for 94 yards. Most came in the two games after Frost’s firing, against Oklahoma and Indiana.
“The second year was the lowest point of my career basically; I’ve never really been treated like that as a player,” he said. “And me being hurt too, not hurt, but just like not fully back. It makes you not take anything for granted.”
Ervin leaned on his family, his faith and himself.
“Knowing who you are, you’re still Gabe Ervin. I had to know myself,” he said. “Now, I’m on the end of the spectrum. Third year, you know, your body’s looking good, you feel great. Why not go get it?”
Even from an outside perspective, it appeared he did throughout the spring. Many got to see it first-hand during the spring game.
In the first quarter of the scrimmage, he took a handoff just inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, cut toward a hole on the left side, and met defensive back Omar Brown. Ervin was the decisive winner, throwing Brown off with a stiff arm and surging ahead to score.
It was a scrimmage, of course, but it showed the flashes. Ervin said he feels the healthiest he’s been since the early years of high school. Ask the head coach and the redshirt sophomore was one of the stars of the offseason and has the potential to be a battering ram in the fall.
Ervin has plenty of compliments for Rhule and new running backs coach E.J. Barthel. He feels confident in his ability to “see through people,” and sees love when he looks at this staff.
“They’re holding everybody to the same standard; they’re holding each player accountable because they want to see us be great one day,” Ervin said. “I can really see that in this staff. They genuinely love you, they don’t coach just to coach so they have a job but they really want you to become a man one day and become successful.”
Ervin seemed to be on the path to a significant role this fall. There was plenty of time before depth charts were decided, and with 2022’s leading rusher, Anthony Grant, still on the roster added to the fact there are no guarantees.
However, the running back group planned on continuing to compete in pursuit of the team’s goal. For Ervin, maintaining his positive attitude will be part of that.
“This spring, every time I stepped foot on that football field, I didn’t take anything for granted,” he said. “I was happy all the time because I just know what it’s like when you don’t have football. And that sucks. Just knowing that you’re playing the game that you love, it just makes me smile.”