Nebraska Cornhuskers wide receiver Will Nixon jukes by defender to go out for a pass
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Noa Pola-Gates Looking to Make His Mark in Year Three at Nebraska

August 16, 2021

Noa Pola-Gates’ first action as a Huskers came in the second game of his freshman year.

Pola-Gates got on the field as part of Nebraska’s kickoff coverage unit. It was a fairly uneventful day as all but one of Nebraska’s kickoffs resulted in a touchback. The one that didn’t, however, stands out in Pola-Gates’ memory.

“I remember running down,” Pola-Gates said. “I kind of over-pursued a little bit and I forgot what his name was but No. 2 from Colorado had a pretty good run on that play.”

“No. 2” was Laviska Shenault, Colorado’s do-everything star wideout who is now playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Pola-Gates was the first one to the ball but underestimated Shenault’s speed as the Buffalo ran right by as Pola-Gates dove to the turf at his heels. The return went for 54 yards, but Cam Taylor-Britt had his rookie’s back, chasing Shenault down from behind and forcing a fumble that Luke Reimer recovered.

Even so, it was an eye-opening experience for the 4-star safety. Outside of some kickoff return,  Pola-Gates didn’t play special teams in high school; he had no idea what all went into being successful int he third phase of the game.

“At first, it kind of put me in shock, the techniques and everything and how detailed it is on special teams,” Pola-Gates said. “But after a while I kind of just kept paying attention and kept sticking to the script and I just went out there and played and had fun.”

Pola-Gates played one more game, again on special teams, before an injury ended his freshman year. Even though it was only a handful of reps, Pola-Gates said that experience during what turned into a redshirt year made a big difference in his development.

“When they throw you in for that first time, just getting that game speed and getting the feel of the game, it helped a lot because compared to high school it was super fast and everything’s so happening so quick and so precisely,” Pola-Gates said. “I’d say it helped a lot.”

Last season, Pola-Gates saw action in every game, mostly on special teams. He recorded three tackles on kickoff coverage and he made his debut on defense in Nebraska’s loss to Illinois.

Special teams wasn’t the only area in which Pola-Gates came to Nebraska lacking knowledge of what it takes to play at the Big Ten level. In high school, he let his athleticism and motor carry him.

“When I first got here, it was kind of a struggle for me because I didn’t really know football too well,” Pola-Gates said. “Being here, being coached by a great coach like Coach Fish, just being out there, he helps me a lot with my alignments.”

Travis Fisher likes to cross-train a lot of his defensive backs, and Pola-Gates was no exception. He spent time early in his freshman season at cornerback, and those practices provided another “welcome to college football” moment for the young defensive back.

“In 2019 they had moved me to corner, so really just playing against JD Spielman and Mike Williams and all those fast guys and how twitchy they were, how they run their routes, it was just a different game speed so I had to adjust,” Pola-Gates said.

Pola-Gates said that experience helped his overall understanding of the defense and the individual jobs of every defensive back on the field.

“I think it helped out a lot because knowing what the corner’s doing and, being the safety and having to give the corner the calls, it helps a lot,” Pola-Gates said.

Once he healed up from the injury Pola-Gates returned to safety and that’s where he remains. He’s competing alongside Myles Farmer and other young defensive backs for playing time behind super seniors Deontai Williams and Marquel Dismuke.

Two years into his career, Pola-Gates said the speed of the game is slowing down for him. He’s seeing the field better, he’s understanding the defensive calls a safety needs to make in Nebraska’s defense and is consistently aligning himself correctly on the field.

Though Pola-Gates is looking to make move up the depth chart on defense heading into his third year at Nebraska, special teams remains a major focus for him, just like it is for all of the defensive backs in Fisher’s room. Pola-Gates said he’s working on all four core special teams units: kickoff, kickoff return, punt and punt return.

“Coach Fish has always harped on being special teams players,” Pola-Gates said. “Special teams players are selected for a reason, so I’m trying to get out there and giving it my all to just be out on the field as much as I can.”

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