KEARNEY — Jacey Nutter was a prolific eight-man player for Sandhills/Thedford.
He was the starting quarterback and strong safety for the Knights, setting the program record for career passing yards, completions, passing touchdowns, tackles and defensive interceptions from 2013-16.
His intangibles, size and work ethic have allowed him to remain an impact player at the Division II collegiate level, as he’s added about 20 pounds to his 6-foot-1 frame and transformed into an inside linebacker at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. The Lopers play Lincoln University today (Saturday) at Jefferson City, Mo.
As a sophomore this season, Nutter has received his chance at starting for the Lopers’ defense, which is one of the best in the MIAA.
"The coaches were really good with working with me and helping me to figure out the differences with three more guys on each side," Nutter said. "It just took some time and studying to get to where I needed to get."
Nutter signed with the Lopers in February 2017. Then-head coach Josh Lamberson initiated the dialogue with Nutter, but it was current head coach Josh Lynn who did the bulk of the recruiting, Nutter said.
Lynn convinced Nutter to sign with the UNK over Wayne State and Chadron State.
When Nutter committed, the Lopers were in disarray. They won one game in 2016, which came after a winless season in 2015. UNK had just hired Lynn with the hope he could resurrect the program when Lamberson left after two seasons for an associate head coach and offensive coordinator position at Division I FCS Abilene Christian in Texas.
Nutter drew parallels from his own experience at Sandhills/Thedford. Sandhills and Thedford co-oped in 2008 and never had a winning season when Nutter joined the program as a freshman in 2013.
The Knights matched their highest win total in the program’s short existence with a 4-5 record in Nutter’s first year. They continued to trend upward, posting records of 8-3, 10-2 and 9-3 in Nutter’s final three seasons.
"My freshman year of high school we weren’t very good and kind of built it back up. I wanted to be a part of something like that here," Nutter said.
Moving from eight-man football to the 11-man game was a transition for Nutter. The Lopers also put Nutter at outside linebacker instead of safety, which he played in high school.
Nutter spent his first season with the Lopers as a redshirt. He adjusted to the speed of play, the larger field and overall expectations for a Division II football student-athlete.
When spring practice began in the second semester of his freshman year, the Lopers converted him to inside linebacker. It was a change Nutter welcomed. He had added muscle to his frame and enjoyed the idea of focusing less on pass coverage and more on rushing the quarterback.
"Ultimately, it was a great move for me. I like it a lot," Nutter said. "I just like the physicality of being inside."
As a redshirt freshman last year, Nutter played primarily on special teams. He participated in seven games and recorded four tackles.
It appeared Nutter would have a similar role this season with seniors Sal Silvio and Rakid Hill occupying the starting inside linebacker spots. Nutter accepted that assignment but knew he was one injury away from receiving his chance.
On Sept. 28 against nationally-ranked Pittsburg State, that opportunity came. Hill suffered an injury after intercepting Pittsburg State quarterback Mak Sexton on the first series of the game. The coaches put Nutter in Hill’s place and he excelled, recording seven tackles.
"He’s young and it’s always promising as a coach to see your young guys step in and start to play well," Lynn said.
Nutter didn’t regress when he received his first collegiate start last Saturday. He paced the Lopers with 12 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for a loss, and one sack against Northeastern State.
With Hill’s status for the rest of the season unknown, Nutter wants to refine his defensive reads and tackling in hopes of continuing his high level of play.
"I am just trying to make the best of every opportunity I get, and the coaches are putting us in good positions to make plays," Nutter said. "We just have to capitalize on those chances when we can."