Last Saturday, incoming freshman offensive tackle Bryce Benhart won the Minnesota Class 3A heavyweight title on the mat to cap a perfect senior wrestling season at 34-0. He took a week to enjoy it. This weekend, Benhart was in Lincoln to go over Nebraska’s playbook with his new position coach, Greg Austin.
“We have weekly conversations,” Austin said of Benhart and the rest of his incoming linemen. “Those guys know our offense. You can ask them what install A and B is and they’ll be able to tell you. They’ll connect the dots for you.
“We’re getting those guys ready to go.”
Austin has made it clear to the new guys there will be no hand-holding when they arrive. So Michael Lynn already has the playbook and Matthew Anderson is already in the weight room bulking up and Benhart is doing everything he can to make sure he’s caught up when he arrives full-time in the fall.
For the linemen already here, they were expected to hit the ground running when spring ball began last week. Which is to say Austin isn’t messing around this season. Nebraska is no longer in a Year 1 setting where it’s understandable to be rough around the edges or less-than-100-percent in your understanding of the system or what’s asked of you; this offseason is about getting better and fixing last year’s mistakes. It’s about growth.
And that, of course, starts in the weight room.
“The strength staff really helped us out,” junior tackle Matt Farniok said. “We’re moving quicker, we’re stronger. We’re just all really grateful for what [strength] coach [Zach] Duval has done for us because we can see the changes and what’s happened to our play and our bodies.”
Austin sees those changes, too.
“They look at the weight room with a totally different mindset than they did before we arrived here,” Austin said. “They compete, not only with each other, but they compete with themselves.
“There’s a pride that I’ve never seen them exude since I’ve been here, just that feeling of, ‘This matters.’”
Whereas last year the weight room was viewed as a chore — “Alright, we’ve got to do this, it’s just part of the deal,” was the exact phrasing Austin used — this season Duval’s sanctuary has been embraced from the top down. Credit for that, in part, goes to Farniok.
There was a question as to who would become the guy in Austin’s room everyone else looked to. Jerald Foster was that guy last season, a senior and a captain. When Foster spoke, everyone listened. He was the one who routinely came to the podium to field the hard questions during the Huskers’ early-season struggles. When it wasn’t Foster, it was Tanner Farmer — another senior last year — who might become one of the more beloved players in recent memory thanks to his blend of work ethic and motivational ability. Those two just didn’t leave behind positions to fill, but also a presumed opening for new leaders.
Presumed, because that role wasn’t open for very long.
“Matt Farniok,” Austin said when asked who was taking over for Foster. He actually didn’t even let the question finish before answering. Then, with a smile when asked how he knew, simply said the elder Farniok brother proved it before spring ball even got close.
“He was chomping at the bit last year and he had to wait his turn. Now that he has his turn, he hasn’t turned back,” Austin said. “Everything that he says, the guys listen to and he backs it up with his mindset and the way he attacks everything.”
Example: it’s a regular day in the weight room and Austin walks in to find Farniok throwing up in one of the trash cans “because he’s busting his ass so hard.” After he’s done, he cleans up, catches his breath and jumps right back into his set.
“He’s going to push himself, and he’s going to demand other guys push themselves as well,” Austin said. “I’m excited about what he brings to this room and the leader that he’s becoming.”
You can start to hear it a little bit when Farniok talks, too. He was the only member of the offensive line to meet with the media last week and in a situation where he’s been maybe a little uncomfortable or soft-spoken in recent years, Farniok looked more at ease. You almost hear a little of Farmer in him when he talks.
Asked who’s the leader of the room (before being told by Austin it’s in fact the one being asked the question), Farniok says everyone does their part.
“The o-line has never really been too quiet about ourselves,” Farniok said. “We’ve always cared about doing the right thing, getting the right thing done, so I mean, [Foster and Farmer] definitely helped create a path and show an example of what a leader needs to be.
“We all respect each other and we all know that we care deeply about where we’re heading and what we’re going to be, so when someone in our group talks, we respect what they’re saying and listen to what they’re saying.”
When it comes to the line on the field, there are a few questions that probably won’t be worked through as quickly. Foster started every game for each of the last two seasons at left guard. Farmer started every game he was healthy for in each of the last three years. That’s production that won’t be easily replaced on the interior of the line.
Christian Gaylord and Trent Hixson are impressing early on, along with walk-on AJ Forbes. Redshirt freshman center Cam Jurgens isn’t 100 percent healthy yet after a broken foot cost him 2018, but he’s getting there. “I wouldn’t say he’s full speed yet but he’s getting reps,” Scott Frost said.
And for anyone wondering, those are all interior guys. There’s a notion that Farniok should be moved inside from right tackle, where he started every game last season and two games during his redshirt freshman season. Austin, when asked, said, “We’re going to put him at his best position.”
Currently, that’s tackle.
“Right now, I’m just doing tackle, so that’s a question for the coaches,” Farniok said. And there hasn’t been much talk outside that. “It’s just, ‘Do your job right now and we’ll figure all that out later.’”
Farniok, at 6-foot-6, said he added muscle but didn’t change much from his playing weight at 330 last year. The emphasis for him this offseason was flexibility and being able to bend better, play lower and be more consistent with leverage. He’s hoping it makes a difference, wherever he’s playing.
The 6-foot-9 Benhart might be the only one who could make the answer to that question “guard” instead of “tackle.” Unless those weekend meetings with Austin and playbook sessions in the summer help him walk into the room this fall and blow everyone out of the water, Farniok will likely still be out on the edge. Meaning Nebraska could have two budding talents on both ends of its line (we made it almost 1,200 words without talking about Brenden Jaimes…).
Even with questions about who’s taking over on the interior, that’s a good spot to be in.