When a group of college football recruiters stopped by this past spring for a look at Notre Dame rising senior Nate Link, it was veteran coach Lewis Cook Jr. who provided them a window into his standout defensive end.
They were already mindful of Link’s ability to be a disruptive force, especially off the edge as a pass rusher, either having witnessed him playing in person or watched his highlights.
But it’s these informal trips where coaches attempt to get beneath the surface of a player. They want to try to measure character and work ethic, the traits that might not show up on film but matter in evaluation.
Cook, who begins his 30th high school season, relied on his cell phone for two of his favorite anecdotes in portraying Link on and off the field. He reveals the first of two text messages to the coaches from his Class 3A first team All-State selection, “Coach, are you going by school today?”
“December 24th,” Cook said. “He wanted to get in the weight room on Christmas Eve.”
The next day was a sobering one for Cook, whose mother died on Christmas, yet Link took the time to text his condolences and offered prayers.
“That’s the kind of kid that he is,” Cook said. “He’s a just a solid, hard-working kid that’s driven to play college ball.”
Cook coached Link’s uncle — Benji — more than three decades ago at Rayne High, and in fact Nate has followed in the family football lineage.
Link’s grandfather — Bill “Wild Bill” Link played high school football before earning a scholarship from McNeese State, while his father Kerry was an all-state linebacker and state MVP at Notre Dame. Two of his uncles, Billy and Lance Link, also played for the Pioneers.
“My dad’s been pushing me since I was a little boy,” Nate Link said. “He’s gotten me a long way, and if it weren’t for him, I don’t know if I’d be where I am today. Football runs in the family.”
For the past two seasons Link has been a fixture for a dominating Notre Dame defense, cracking the starting lineup as a sophomore on a team that reached the Class 3A state title game and has remained there for the past 27 consecutive games.
Link has enjoyed a productive career with 98 tackles, 20 of which were behind the line of scrimmage, and three forced fumbles. He’s also been adept at causing havoc on opposing quarterbacks with 21 sacks and 41 hurries.
“The biggest thing is to work within the framework of the defense, and when the opportunity presents itself for the pass rush, I put it in full throttle,” Link said. “We’re a run-stopping defense, and when the opportunity presents itself, and it’s a pass, I’m pinning my ears back and going full steam.”
Link produced all-state credentials a year ago — 50 tackles, 23 QB hurries, 14 tackles for losses, 11 sacks — despite rarely playing in the second half of district games that had long been decided.
With the year over after a heartbreaking 14-10 loss to Parkview Baptist in the Division II state quarterfinals — stopping Notre Dame’s 11-0 season — Link almost immediately turned his attention to his senior season, working toward helping the Pioneers return to the Superdome and enhancing his own chances at a college scholarship.
Link’s prowess in the weight room, coupled with healthy eating, propelled him from a 225-pound junior to 248 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame.
“I knew if I wanted to raise some eyebrows at the next level I had to get to at least 245 before the summer,” he said. “I’ve always worked hard. I put in a lot of extra hours and was eating right.”
A year after attending camps at LSU, Alabama and Texas, Link hit the camp circuit hard again in the summer with trips to Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, USC, California, Harvard, Brown, Air Force and Kansas State.
ULM and Air Force were the lone schools to extend offers and during an unofficial visit to Monroe in July, Link committed and realized one of his most coveted goals.
“I felt welcomed there,” Link said. “I love it, and they loved me.
“I’m looking to go in and play. I’m going to go and work hard and make another name for myself.”