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Cam Jurgens Has Work to Be Done, but Many Believe His Future at Center Is Bright

December 03, 2020

Cameron Jurgens will remain a center. Nebraska will ride with him through the ups and downs. And he’ll turn out to be a great one because of it. 

That was the message from Nebraska coach Scott Frost this week, and there are some intelligent people who agree with him.

After an Iowa performance in which Jurgens fired a number of snaps down, up, and around his quarterback, the redshirt sophomore came under fire a bit. 

Frost acknowledged it needs to be better than it has been—something he also did in-game, pulling Jurgens for a brief break before halftime—but stopped short of criticizing his player.

“He’s too good of a player not to have on the field,” Frost said. “He’s too good of a player to even consider moving him out of that role or moving him somewhere else.”

Frost isn’t alone in sharing his optimism over Jurgens’ potential.

“The kid can really play offensive line,” said Matt Hoskinson, a three-time national title-winning guard and center for Nebraska in the mid-to-late 90s. “He’s a hell of a blocker. Might be our best blocker. He’s a very humble young man, just a really good kid, so I’m rooting for him. I know it’s a source of a lot of frustration for Husker fans, and I understand that completely, but it certainly isn’t for lack of effort. 

“He’s an interior offensive lineman and I think some day we’re going to see him playing on Sundays and we’ll look back on this and kind of giggle at it.”

Here’s the thing: everything is magnified in close games. And Nebraska is routinely in close games under Frost. Eleven of the 19 losses under Frost so far have come by eight points or fewer. 

“A turnover can be a game-changer. One bad snap can be a game-changer. One hold at an inopportune time can be a game-changer. One muffed punt can be a game-changer. That’s the bigger issue for this Nebraska team, the fact they have zero margin for error,” said Rob Zatechka, a highly decorated offensive tackle from Nebraska’s national title-winning team in 1994. “But that’s also a measure of how far they have to go. Good teams have margins of error. Nebraska right now does not.”

Zatechka recalled the season-opener from his senior year. In New Jersey for the 1994 Kick-Off Classic, Nebraska played a ranked West Virginia team that would go on to have a 7-6 year. 

The Huskers turned the ball over five times.

They won 31-0. 

“You have five turnovers against Illinois in 2020 and you’re getting nuked,” Zatechka said.

Comparing apples to oranges here a bit in that that 1994 offensive line had Aaron Graham and Zach Wiegert and Brenden Stai, but they were also just a better team across the board.

“There’s a difference in your ability to make up for these miscues, and that’s the problem with Jurgens’ snapping,” Zatechka said. “It’s not so much the fact that Jurgens is not a good center, it’s not so much the fact that his snaps are the reason Nebraska’s not winning games, there’s probably too much emphasis on him and his snapping alone. The bigger issue is the fact that this is a Nebraska team that to win games they can’t afford any mistakes.”

That’s certainly not Jurgens’ fault. It doesn’t excuse the mistakes either. (Zatechka thought the holding call that wiped away a huge Adrian Martinez run in the fourth quarter proved a more costly mistake than any of the snaps.) But, it does help to reinforce what Frost has been saying. 

Hoskinson’s evaluation is interesting. 

The 6-foot-1 Battle Creek native walked on at Nebraska after starring as a fullback and linebacker and made the transition to guard. As a sophomore in 1995, he played in seven games while serving as the No. 3 left guard. As a junior, he played in all but the Arizona State game and served as the No. 2 right guard. 

“(I) realized in short order that I would make myself more versatile and more apt to get playing time if I learned how to snap the ball,” Hoskinson said. As a senior, he made 13 appearances while serving as the swing sixth guy on the interior. He backed up Aaron Taylor at left guard, he backed up Josh Heskew at center, and he backed up Jon Zatechka at right guard. 

Moving from guard to center isn’t as simple a change as a shift and a throw between the legs. It took time. 

“I had a good technical teacher that understood it very well, and that teacher wasn’t Milt (Tenopir) or Dan (Young), they were very good line coaches, but it was really Aaron Graham who taught me how to snap,” Hoskinson said. “He explained it in a way that made sense to me, and I still utilize those explanations with my youth football teams.”

Jurgens does not have an Aaron Graham, a first-team All-American center in 1995. 

And that might be a big reason for why Nebraska is reluctant to move Jurgens out. And a reason why Nebraska moved him to center in the first place. That the Huskers have turned to Matt Farniok as the No. 2 center in-game instead of Will Farniok, the No. 2 in practice, is telling. 

Perhaps one of two things happened. The staff arrived and said, “Oh my gosh, this is the most athletic big guy on the team, let’s make him the center because of that incredible athletic ability.” Or they surveyed the room and thought, “Oh my gosh, we don’t have anybody else adequate enough to play this position, we need to move a redshirt freshman tight end to center because we just don’t have anybody else.”

“I think it’s a combination of those two things,” Zatechka said. 

Three years later, and Nebraska hasn’t yet added a true center to the team to back him up. Things are different now, sure, and high schools aren’t likely to stick their best offensive lineman at center, but you can find those guys. There’s one with the Zatechka last name right here in the state. 

“I think as time goes on, Jurgens is gonna be a really, really good center,” he said. “I think his blocking ability is amazing. I think he’s a very, very explosive, very strong blocker. I know people talk about well why don’t we move him to guard? Because you don’t have another guy at center. You’ve got some guys who can at least be serviceable at guard, I don’t know if you’ve got somebody who can be as consistently decent at center. I still think Jurgens is the best option on the team right now.”

The key here will be development. 

The Work Needed

“He has just a couple of technical things that are wrong with his snap,” Hoskinson says. “I know he’s working on them, and I actually feel really good that he’s gonna turn things around.”

Like with anything else in sports: practice makes perfect. Jurgens needs reps. Like a free-throw shooter or a pinch-hitter, there are a few key technical elements that must be mastered before you can find consistent success.

“The first is you’ve got to have your head comfortably over the football,” Hoskinson says. “By doing that, you kind of relax your right arm a little bit. If you get the ball extended too far in front of you, I would make the analogy that it’s like a long, looping golf swing. The longer your backswing, it’s a lot harder to hit the golf ball, but if you shorten that swing to a reasonable amount, it gives you a lot more control over your club and you’re better able to hit the ball. 

A second-quarter snap against Iowa on Nov. 27.

“It’s the same concept with snapping. If it’s way out in front of you, there’s a lot more that you have to think about and control—wrist motion, arm motion, where you finish, things of that nature—than if you have it directly over your eyes. So, just moving the ball to a comfortable position over your eyes.”

Hoskinson adds that in the history of football, centers are rarely ever called for offside. You want to be as close as you can possibly be. Look at NFL centers and recent Rimington Trophy winners

“Another real important technical piece is where you finish and how you finish,” Hoskinson said. “Right-handed snappers, which is probably 99% of centers, when you first start you have a tendency to clip your right knee. You have to finish more midline and then be able to extend your hand to the quarterback. It’s kind of like a follow-through shooting a free throw.”

It’s the don’t overthink piece of the equation. Hoskinson said when he’d warm up with other centers, former offensive line coach Milt Tenopir would have the guys play catch. “Just regular, good, old-fashioned catch with a football,” he said. Get a feel for the consistent hand placement on the ball in the right spot and toss back and forth. 

Because that’s what the snap is: a pass between the legs. 

“When you get really wristy and you’re a right-handed center, the tendency is to snap high and right, and that’s what we’re seeing,” Hoskinson said. “So that means you’re cocking your wrist when you snap the ball. On your follow-through when you snap your wrist, the ball only has one place to go. It’s gonna hug your right leg and it’s gonna go high and right.”

Here’s the snap right before Frost took Jurgens out against Iowa (it went high and right): 

Who can help? Jurgens’s fellow linemen can offer their support, but not much else. Jurgens doesn’t have another guy who’s played the position for years on whom he can lean. Trent Hixson started at left guard last season. Will Farniok moved from guard to center upon arrival at Nebraska. The other guys are learning right along with him. 

Martinez can offer feedback, but he’s a little different from the guys Hoskinson and Zatechka played with.

“If you had a bad snap with Tommy (Frazier), he might throw the football at you,” Hoskinson said. “Scott wasn’t that way, but Tommy was, and I mean that. I’m not speaking in any way other than direct honesty. Like, he will throw the ball at you.”

Martinez, as displayed this week, is much more reserved. 

“I know he knows me coming up to him and getting in his face and anything like that, I don’t think that’s going to help the situation,” Martinez said.

What the Husker quarterback can do is provide feedback when Jurgens hits the “strike zone” and when he doesn’t. From your knees to your neck and then a few inches out from your body either way is the box to be in. “I think where Adrian can sort of hold him accountable and talk about it is providing real-time feedback,” Hoskinson says. “If I don’t hit it in that box, I’d want to know.”

The Potential There

One could maybe argue the changing at quarterback plays a role. Maybe Jurgens needs a little more consistency in the situation around him. 

Frost is right to point to Jurgens’ rawness as a center. 

“You see a lot of 3-4 in the Big Ten, so you’ve got a 320-pound-plus nose guard that’s right on top of you,” Hoskinson says. “Depending on the system and what you’re trying to get accomplished, it’s not so much the pass-pro piece—that’s easy because you’re kind of setting up—but if you’re pulling, if you’re pin blocking, if it’s a four-front and you’re pinning, maybe you have to scoop a guy… to snap and step simultaneously is one of the most difficult things that any offensive lineman has to do. 

“Once you master the art of stepping and snapping at the same time, that’s when everything is really, really easy.”

Jurgens is still just a sophomore. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

Or, maybe he’s just in his head right now and needs to find a way out of it. 

The thing that’s obvious to people who watch him play and know what to look for is that when he’s on, he’s really on.

“When his snaps are down, when he’s making good snaps, he’s an outstanding center,” Zatechka said. Quickness might be the most important part of playing the positions, and Jurgens has that. “I think the frustrating thing with Jurgens is it’s sort of this all or nothing picture with him where he’s either the snap’s good and he’s crushing somebody or it’s a bad snap.”

Hoskinson sees the same.

“You can see the great blocks and the aggressive nature and the athleticism. I mean, he’s strong as a bull,” he said. “One thing that’s really hard is as a center, you are 100% sure you know when you have a bad snap. You know. It changes your block. You completely lose your concept of spatial awareness and thought and what’s going on and who you need to block because you know you just had a horrible snap.”

It might be taken as a negative when he says it, but he means it in a positive way: there’s a lot of room to grow, Hoskinson thinks. Once some of the technical pieces are ironed out, everyone who knows how to watch and evaluate that spot thinks Jurgens will make strides.

“He’s smart, he’s extremely athletic and he’s exceptionally explosive,” Frost said. “He’s still in some ways learning the position. He didn’t play it until last season, but he’s got the skill set to be really, really special at that position.”

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