GRETNA, Neb. — One of the first calls Greg Austin took after taking over as the Huskers’ new offensive line coach was from a high school coach just an hour drive north of Lincoln. Larry Martin, the head coach at Omaha North, was calling to talk about Michael Decker. Martin wanted to talk with Decker’s new coach about how the injury-rehabbing center was “feeling about the game moving forward.”
Austin knew from pretty much the jump that he could be losing his returning starter at center.
“It was something in the back of my mind,” Austin said Tuesday at his and Athletic Director Bill Moos’ last stop on the Huskers’ two-day cross-state coaching tour in Gretna, Nebraska. “he was learning the scheme, there was no question about our scheme or technique or any adjustment that I asked him that he did not know the answer to, so things looked good. And then he kind of made that decision out of the blue … I certainly had good aspirations of him being a key cog in our operation and he had other aspirations.”
Decker announced in late May his decision to retire from football, citing a dwindling commitment to the game. While the outside braced for the loss of a true bright spot in a dismal 2017 season for offensive line play (only one Big Ten team averaged fewer rushing yards per play than the Huskers' 4.25 YPP and that was Illinois at 4.22), Austin wasn’t as worried internally as you'd think.
“To say that we’ll miss him is kind of a yes and no,” Austin said. “Yes, we’ll miss him. Certainly, we’ll miss his body, we’ll miss his presence, we’ll miss his intelligence, we’ll miss the things that only he can bring to the group but we never knew football with him.”
Decker didn’t participate in spring ball or the April 21 Red-White scrimmage. He was learning the techniques and new scheme with the rest of the team, but he wasn’t playing. It’s different learning it in the film room and living it on the practice field. As Austin put it, it’s “certainly a loss but [you] really can’t tell the impact of the loss because we never knew the impact of him being here.”
For that reason, Austin feels good about his offensive linemen, and his centers, heading into the fall. When asked, generally, just how good he felt about the group, he offered perhaps the clearest answer on who’s leading the pack.
“We have to play the guys that are here and one of the guys that’s here is Cole Conrad,” Austin said. (Again, important here to note the question wasn’t about specific players. Okay, back to Austin.) “We’re fortunate to have him and he did some things for us in the spring. The best thing about spring ball is you move forward and you see who else can step up and play in that role.”
The “who else” in this case is a foursome consisting of some veterans at other spots on the line and a pair of youngsters. The group everyone heard about during the spring: senior guards Tanner Farmer (right) and Jerald Foster (left) along with redshirt freshman Hunter Miller and true freshman Will Farniok.
Austin said the staff also hasn’t yet closed the door on an “outside source” coming onto the team and contributing. He had no news of further roster attrition to share, at least in his room, so space for a newcomer would likely have to come from elsewhere. Until then, it looks like last year’s first starter at center might be the guy.
Perhaps Austin was talking about Conrad again a little later when he offered pretty high praise for his group. Media interviews came first, before the main show started, but once Austin and Moos made their opening “here’s who I am, here’s how I got here, here’s what’s going to happen” statements, the questions came. One, directed at Austin, asked whether Nebraska has the talent it needs currently on its roster to rebuild The Pipeline.
Austin did not hesitate.
“There are a few guys here now that can play at the level of an Outland or Rimington Trophy,” he responded. “Not going to call names out but there are guys here now that can be the best in the country.”
He said it’s his job to push those few to reach that potential. Can they be pushed? “Damn right,” Austin said.
Maybe that was just playing to the crowd, but since they got here, this new coaching staff hasn’t really been the type to give off showy one-liners without substance. They haven’t had the chance to prove themselves on Tom Osborne Field yet, but they have the next best thing in a perfect 2017 season that validates the idea that what they do works. And they all seem pretty aware of the fact the people they’re speaking to have been fed false promises for the greater part of a decade.
Until he gets the chance to actually start fulfilling some on the field, Austin seems pretty content in the knowledge that the guys he has, the ones that have dedicated to Husker football, are “locked in” and “handling their business.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.