RENO, Nev. — As the years go on, freshman James Butler’s name probably will appear on the top-10 list for career rushing leaders at Nevada.
Junior Don Jackson, who likely will have two seasons as a primary ball-carrier, might show up on a top-10 list for rushing in a season.
Nate McLaurin’s name will be nowhere to be found. Make it a top-100 list, and you still won’t see his name.
But if the Wolf Pack ever added an unsung hero category, McLaurin, a senior and former walk-on, would be near the top.
Butler took McLaurin’s spot. McLaurin, who came to Nevada in 2011 as a transfer from Grossmont College near his hometown of San Diego, was penciled in as the No. 2 back behind Jackson entering camp. But the ballyhooed Butler moved into the role early and has been a key contributor all season.
The 6-foot, 210-pound McLaurin has been relegated to mop-up duty (he has 11 carries for 50 yards this season) and special teams, mostly kick coverage.
McLaurin could have pouted. He could at least have been envious. He has been neither. In fact, he has been the opposite — a dream, his coaches and teammates say.
“I appreciate him a great deal,” said second-year coach Brian Polian, who promised McLaurin last year that he would get him on scholarship as soon as possible and did so in the spring. “I personally like him very much, and you can’t help but admire his perseverance. The reason we put him on scholarship, we weren’t necessarily rewarding him for all the physical results we were getting, but we wanted to reward a guy that was a mentor to the young backs in the room. He teaches guys like James Butler and to a lesser degree Don how to act like college football players, how to prepare like college football players.”
Jackson, who is two years younger than McLaurin, calls him “Pops.”
“With (Butler) not growing up with his father, he’s become like a father figure (to him),” Jackson said of McLaurin. “He motivates, he leads. Every game there’s tough times, always ups and downs. And where there’s downs, he’s the first person at you to either give you wisdom or help you bring yourself back up.”
He’s also the one to initiate meetings or watch tape, a highly unique quality for a player who doesn’t play much.
“Nate will send a group text, ‘Don, JB, I know it’s early, but we’ve got to get up and watch film,’ ” Jackson said. “He’ll be the first one there already drawing something up on the board.”
McLaurin was recruited by Nevada as a cornerback out of San Diego’s Horizon High but chose the junior-college route because he wanted to be a running back. He redshirted in 2011, played on special teams in 2012 and then had 13 carries for 17 yards last season.
He said he was never put off by losing the backup tailback job to Butler and said it’s important to him to be a team player.
“I kind of realized my role, kind of my gift in life is to pour back knowledge into these young guys,” said McLaurin, whose fiancée gave birth to son Nate Blessing Macalma McLaurin, their first child, in October. “I talked to the coaches before and basically came in with the mindset of, ‘Hey, whatever you guys need me to do.’ ”
McLaurin said it was important to him to buy into the new coaching staff.
“I wanted to make sure I got on the same page with them,” he said. “That’s kind of been my role, kind of taking care of the sheep.”
“He’s a special kid, and we’re going to miss his leadership,” Polian said. “And that’s hard. Fans don’t see what we see. They only see what happens on game day. They only see, ‘Oh, the guy only gets 20 carries a year.’ He’s so much more valuable than that.”