If all goes to plan, the next four weeks should be relatively drama-free in Nebraska’s offensive line room.
Linemen, typically, are anti-drama in the first place, and position coach Greg Austin came out of spring with essentially four starters penciled in and the right guard job up for grabs.
Even without drama, though, expectations for the group are, to use a term from the trenches, mugging the ‘A’ gap.
They’re right there, not making any bones about arriving with force. Now, will the talented but relatively young offensive line group pick up the pressure or struggle to create forward momentum?
“The attitude is changing, it’s transforming,” head coach Scott Frost said Thursday. “From, ‘I hope we get the job done,’ to, ‘We’re going to go make this happen.’ Being a little more aggressive and physical. I know some of the guys have spent some time this summer around some of our ex-players, Aaron Graham and Rob Zatechka and (Brendan) Stai and (Matt) Hoskinson and some of the guys that played long ago and had those conversations.
“The leaders on your team have to have the right mentality, particularly when it comes to the front line on offense and the front line on defense. It’s probably still a little young, but I’m really starting to see that type of determination from those guys.”
Center Cam Jurgens is the most experienced player among NU’s likely starters, having manned the middle for the past two years. Left guard Ethan Piper and right tackle Bryce Benhart were first-time starters in 2020, while left tackle Turner Corcoran made his starting debut in the Huskers’ season finale at Rutgers.
“Last year wasn’t a normal season, but gosh we needed that season,” Frost said. “When you look around our roster, from Jurgens being young to Piper and Benhart to Corcoran to (defensive players) Ty Robinson to Garrett Nelson, to all our running backs to some of our receivers that were new. You can get a lot done in practice, but you really make your improvement when you get game reps and get experience. A lot of those guys are young but have experience; I just want to see them keep developing with the more experience they get.”
Benhart, the 6-foot-9, 330-pound right tackle, said he thought playing in eight games last year will pay off in a big way.
“Just because I know what it takes now. I know what to expect now,” he said. “I guess the only part is I’ve never played in front of fans. So that’s the next thing that I need to overcome."
A year ago, Benhart had moments where he looked like a freshman and also moments where he looked like a future anchor.
“There was a few games, like Purdue, and a few other games that slowed it down,” he said of adjusting to the pace. “But it took me a while to slow it down just because there’s nothing like it, I guess you could say. You’re just playing against better talent.”
The right-guard job will likely come down to either senior Matt Sichterman or redshirt freshman Brant Banks. Banks can also play tackle, and he and sophomore Nouredin Nouili could essentially be the next man up at any of the four guard and tackle spots. The Huskers like the veteran presence of Trent Hixson, a 2018 starter at guard, as the primary backup to Jurgens in the middle. Piper and Nouili have also seen repetitions at center over the spring and summer.
“You should always be getting pushed; it doesn’t matter if you’re a three-year starter or whatever,” Jurgens said. “If you’re a football player and you care about it and you’re a second-teamer, you should be pushing the guy in front of you. And I think it’s more about having the right people in here.”
So, Nebraska hopes that 2020 serves as a building block and also a launching pad for a young group that is now a young, somewhat seasoned group.
“I think it’s just the process coming along and getting the right guys in here, having that gritty attitude, talking to guys from the past about what made The Pipeline,” Jurgens said. “It’s just guys going against the person across from you and just kicking ass and making sure they’re having a tougher game than you are.”