How Nathan Cottrell was the right player for a huge play

Georgia Tech running back Nathan Cottrell (31) is lifted up by tight end Tyler Cooksey during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Miami, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Credit: Wilfredo Lee

Credit: Wilfredo Lee

Georgia Tech running back Nathan Cottrell (31) is lifted up by tight end Tyler Cooksey during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Miami, Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Nathan Cottrell hoped he would be given the opportunity to come through for his team. Late in the first quarter of Georgia Tech’s game at Miami on Saturday, the moment arrived – a fake punt in which Cottrell, lined up at gunner, was to run down the sideline and catch a pass from punter Pressley Harvin.

“(Coach Geoff Collins) trusted me to go out there and complete it, so I didn’t want to let my team or let any of the coaches down,” Cottrell said Wednesday. “Just did all I could, and when I got out there, it was just another play that we got to make happen.”

Tech fans know what happened. Cottrell caught Harvin’s on-target pass for a 41-yard touchdown reception that tied the score at 14-14, a momentous play in the Yellow Jackets’ 28-21 win over Miami that ended the team’s four-game losing streak.

“I can’t really describe how it felt,” Cottrell told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as he walked back to the locker room following practice. “It was amazing. It was a lot of fun.”

Cottrell represents a number of facets of this team as it transitions to Collins’ leadership. The running back (formerly an A-back in former coach Paul Johnson’s offense) is one of only 11 seniors on the roster. Cottrell bought heavily into Collins and his emphasis on energy and effort, even in the face of adversity.

Having graduated in May with a degree in business administration, Cottrell had the opportunity to leave Tech as a grad transfer for another school where he might have had more opportunity to play, but he never considered it, wanting to experience and contribute to the transition. (He is earning a master’s in building construction.)

He also has become a staple of Tech’s special-teams units, another Collins priority, playing on the punt and kickoff teams and both return teams. In that way, Cottrell has exemplified the position flexibility that Collins has tried to develop to make the best use of the roster. Cottrell’s contributions have been recognized in his being chosen to wear the No. 90 jersey honoring the late Brandon Adams for the game against The Citadel and also being selected as a team captain for the North Carolina game.

“I think it comes out when he plays, just his effort, how he approaches every single day,” said Jeff Popovich, cornerbacks coach and defensive special-teams coordinator. “He’s out here and he goes 100 miles an hour every single rep to be great.”

It was fitting then, that in a game in which the Jackets were widely expected to lose and remain stuck in their losing rut, Cottrell was the one called on to make a daring special-teams play that proved pivotal.

“It meant the world,” said Cottrell, from Knoxville, Tenn. “It was just a special play for me, personally. Just having been through these changes and tough times and just seeing hard work pay off for the whole team was huge for us. I loved being able to be a part of that.”

Tech had worked on the play in the week leading to the Miami game, noting that the Hurricanes’ “punt safe” scheme would allow Cottrell the opportunity to run downfield and get open. Cottrell said he was anxious about the play but hopeful that the Jackets would get a chance to run it.

Down 14-7 late in the first quarter with a drive stalled on the Miami 41, Collins made the call.

“Pressley threw an absolutely perfect ball – right placement, right on the sideline – and made my job easy,” Cottrell said. “I tried to run under it and catch it and the rest kind of worked itself out.”

Tech’s record (2-5) might not be what Cottrell envisioned for his senior season, but the process of the season has.

“The amount of fun and just the energy we have every day, it’s contagious,” he said. “I could be coming in having a rough day, but as soon as I get around my brothers on this team, it’s an instant change.”

That resolve has helped spur development and improvement. As a gunner on the punt team, Cottrell himself has used his effort and speed to get free to run downfield to chase down returners, but acknowledged that he has to get better at making plays once there. It’s a skill he’ll need to master to get a chance at the NFL. Earlier in the season, Collins called him “an NFL special-teams player.”

“It’s kind of a foreign thing for me still, making the actual tackle, so (I’m) really just trying to work on that as a whole this week and continuing on to the rest of the season so hopefully I can finish those plays and get in the right position to do that,” he said.

As the Jackets are in the midst of their second open week of the season, they have the opportunity to recover and gird themselves for the final five games of the season. An emotional overtime win over an ACC rival to end a four-game losing streak could scarcely have been timed better.

“It doesn’t matter what our record ends up being – I know our team’s not going to falter,” Cottrell said. “We’re just going to keep coming out to battle every day and just keep finding something to work on.”