Now in its third year as a summer series, we’re looking at Huskers who could be major swing factors in Nebraska’s upcoming season. One a week, working from the bottom up.
- No. 10 Chase Contreraz
- No. 9 Garrett Nelson
- No. 8 Chris Hickman
- No. 7 Ty Robinson
- No. 6 Dedrick Mills
No. 5: Matt Farniok
Back in January, PFF ranked the 130 offensive lines in college football heading into the 2020 season. Nebraska came in at No. 93. There were 15 Power Five offensive line units below the Huskers in PFF’s rankings, four of them from the Big Ten. (Five ACC programs are in the bottom-30, that conference owes Clemson so much it’s ridiculous.)
Not terrible for Nebraska, but not good by any stretch of the imagination. Though we probably didn’t need a PFF ranking to tell us Nebraska’s o-line play in 2019 wasn’t up to snuff.
What’s interesting is how that group graded out: 60th in pass protection, giving up the 27th-fewest quarterback hits, but 113th in run blocking. Brenden Jaimes was the highest-graded member of the unit (72.5, 84th amongst eligible offensive linemen).
At the risk of number overload, here are a few more.
|Std. Downs Line Yds.||2.33||95th|
|Power Success Rate||78.1%||26th|
|Std. Downs Sack Rate||4.0%||45th|
|Pass Downs Sacks Rate||12.6%||112th|
Red represents a drop in ranking from the 2018 season, green represents an improvement. An explanation of each of those categories can be found at FootballOutsiders.com, where each stat comes from.
Nebraska was top-30 in line yards, standard downs line yards, and opportunity rate (11th in fact) in 2018. This past season represented a massive step back in the rushing department.
But protecting the passer wasn’t much better according to the advanced metrics, particularly on passing downs (second-and-8 or more, third- or fourth-and-5 or more).
Simply put: Nebraska has a starting point, it doesn’t have a finished product.
Interior running was an adventure early on in the 2019 season. Snapping the ball on target was a roller coaster ride throughout. Quarterback Adrian Martinez was pressured often, but he didn’t help his line with indecision. Running back was a revolving door, but injuries didn’t help. The offensive line was the only constant for Nebraska’s offense last year, but that didn’t mean it was consistently successful.
This unit heading into 2020 could theoretically look exactly like the 2019 iteration. Jaimes, Trent Hixson (left guard), Cameron Jurgens (center), Boe Wilson (right guard), and Matt Farniok (right tackle) are all back. Jaimes and Farniok both return as seniors—as does Wilson—and that’s a big deal in a league that practically requires you be big and old up front.
Jaimes isn’t going anywhere.
Farniok might be.
Some, as early as spring 2019, thought Farniok should have been moved to the interior of the line. Most think that now.
If Nebraska is going to move a senior from the tackle position he’s started every game at over the last two years to left guard—the position he lined up at during the first day of spring ball—it better have a damn good replacement at right tackle.
The assumption is that replacement is the 6-foot-9 Bryce Benhart. The only problem is that as of today, May 13, that is still only an assumption. Asked back in March when spring ball began how Benhart was progressing, offensive line coach Greg Austin responded: “It’s Day 1, bro.”
Because of the coronavirus, Nebraska moved one space off “Go” and then got sent back.
It’s still Day 1.
If Nebraska was going to move around its line, having an entire spring period and a normal summer/fall schedule to train for the season was going to be critical. That group has to hit the ground running. Big Ten football is won in the trenches, and Nebraska’s 2020 schedule doesn’t afford it the ability to start slow.
So, where to put Farniok?
Playing it safe would be sticking with the Jaimes-Hixson-Jurgens-Wilson-Farniok grouping of a year ago, and hoping that their collective comfort level and individual gains can lead to a more cohesive unit.
“I think we weren't quite as mesh as we needed to be,” Farniok said of the play last year. “I would say that was our biggest downfall. It just seemed that we were just half a step off of each other. I think especially now having that all under our belt, having the spring ball, it already felt today that we were more together. Everyone seemed to be moving in unison which was really nice.”
Players get talking points before meeting the media, but Farniok’s message has remained the same since mid-season last year: guys weren’t all on the same page. One misstep from one guy causes a cascade of problems on an offensive line.
Is Benhart’s potential at tackle and Farniok’s potential at guard enough to justify giving up whatever growth that five-man group has made?
That answer very well could be yes. In which case Scott Frost and Co. would be better served making the move now. Benhart is the future at tackle one way or another, and the best way to learn is to do. On the other hand, Farniok would be moving from space on the edge to a box inside and Benhart would be guarding against Big Ten defenses as a redshirt freshman.
Tough asks in normal times.
“Tackle to guard isn't as drastic of a change as you'd think,” Farniok started. “The only thing that changes is that everything is going to happen a little bit faster.”
That seems an understatement. Farniok gives the boilerplate “I’ll play where they want me” response to positional preference questions, and we won’t really know whether a move is working until we’re a game or two into the nonconference schedule.
If there is no nonconference schedule as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic? Well. . . If there’s an abbreviated fall camp? If the team comes back behind from a conditioning standpoint?
Still months away from football, we know who the quarterback will be, we know who the running back will be, we know Wan’Dale Robinson will be at wideout and Omar Manning will be out there too and Jurgens will be at center and Jaimes at left tackle.
We could pencil in, what, nine positions on Nebraska’s offensive unit and feel confident?
I don’t think even the coaches know yet if Farniok is going to be playing tackle or guard.
“It's going to come down to who the best five is up front,” he said. “Wherever they say I fit best, that's where I'll go play.”
It’s not normal to put an entrenched starter, someone in line for a captain role, this high on this list, but I’ll be on the edge of my seat waiting to see where No. 71 lines up to begin next season.