Another day of trench work and gnawing ankles had concluded. His practice jersey soaked in sweat, Jake Cotton had just taken a gulp of Gatorade and a seat when the name of a former Husker offensive lineman came up.

Ricky Henry.

Did he know Nebraska offensive line coach John Garrison had said Cotton's fiery on-field persona reminded him of Henry?

"I'm honored that he would say that," Cotton said. "Ricky was a hard-nosed guy. That's a real honor to be compared to someone like Ricky."

A fire-breather admiring a fire-breather.

And you can be sure Garrison doesn't want to douse the fire of NU's junior offensive guard.

"He'll gnaw your ankle off," Garrison said. "He's just one of those junkyard dogs. That's why he's able to do what he does, because he's not the most fundamentally sound at times. And we're still working on things. But the guy plays his tail off."

The tenacity of the 6-foot-6, 305-pound Cotton is one reason he's considered a leading candidate in the battle at left guard.

He started spring practice working with the No. 1 team and seems to be holding firm. Of course, he cautions — as a coach's son would and should — that "nothing is set in stone. It's between me and a bunch of guys."

Those guys include Mike Moudy, Ryne Reeves (though he's out for the remainder of spring) and Givens Price. All are in the guard conversation. There's also junior college recruit Chongo Kondolo, a likely guard/center who will arrive this summer.

But Cotton's turbocharged motor could be a welcome addition to an offensive line that loses hard-charging Justin Jackson from last year's team.

The key, as Garrison points out, is Cotton being able to walk the line and use his emotions to his advantage rather than his detriment.

"I have to remind him every day, 'If you get in a fight, you get kicked out of practice' and we don't want to do that," Garrison said. "He's one of those guys that you've got to kind of reel in a little bit. But you'd rather have that than the other."

Yes, Cotton's emotions got the best of him in the Capital One Bowl game, when a post-play personal foul cost the Huskers 15 yards and earned the lineman an earful from Garrison.

Yet it's that similar fight-to-the-whistle (and occasionally beyond) mentality that drew a flag that also makes Cotton such an enticing prospect on the line.

Add to it that Cotton thinks he learned some things from last year.

"Just play within myself and not let my emotions get the best of me," he said. "I thought it was good to get out there when it mattered and play in a real game setting."

It was certainly a positive step for a guy who had knee surgery in October of 2011.

He's full-go now. Often one of the first guys on the practice field, Garrison says, Cotton can be found working on whatever little thing he was critiqued on in the film session the night before.

When asked for his favorite play, Cotton will tell you: Anything where I'm pulling.

"I like getting out in space and showing my athleticism," he said, laughing. "If you can call it that."

He said he feels cohesiveness with the others on the offensive line.

Senior center Cole Pensick? "Like a Ford truck in there," Cotton said. "Dependable and always going hard."

Senior offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles? That's the guy he rooms with on the road.

There's familiarity there, but then, Cotton will tell you he feels comfortable lining up alongside anyone in the O-line room.

"We're a family in our room," Cotton said. "We know how to work together."

As for his true family, brother Ben has graduated. But dad Barney is still helping coach him on the offensive line. And younger sibling Sam, a freshman tight end, is in the Husker locker room, too.

"Now I'm trying to (be) what Ben was for me with my little brother Sam, trying to show him the ropes," Jake said.

But apparently he is that way with all his teammates, whether they share the same last name or not.

That's one of the things his coach likes so much about him.

"He's 110 percent all in, in every way imaginable," Garrison said. "He's everything you want as far as a teammate. There's no doubt about that."

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