“It’s got to be on our shoulders.”
Those are the words of Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh. In a year where the Huskers will have new starters at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end, the offensive line is the one position group that returns mostly intact.
“It’s got to be on our shoulders,” Cavanaugh reiterated. “It starts up front. We’re the starting blocks. We’re the engine. I love it.”
Cavanaugh said he thinks his group is ready to shoulder that responsibility.
“I really like this group,” Cavanaugh said. “Great in the meetings, attentive, want to learn, love what they’re doing, good guys, fun. So that’s awesome.”
Cavanaugh hasn’t been one to rotate players along the line unless they were too injured to play, and as a result left tackle Nick Gates, left guard Jerald Foster, swing lineman Cole Conrad, right guard Tanner Farmer and right tackle David Knevel have all seen significant playing time together.
“It’s all about chemistry,” Cavanaugh said. “So that group that works together constantly builds up chemistry. I think it obviously starts with communication; every play starts with talking. I think that’s big.”
All five of the projected starters are upperclassmen now, and according to Foster, they’ve all gained trust in each other.
“If you’ve got trust on your offensive line, you’ve got trust on your offense altogether, it just makes things work easier,” Foster said. “I feel like that really is something that we have now with guys being able to already have years [under their belts] and guys being vets, like Gates being a vet and I guess me being old now. Us being able to say that we’ve had this much time together, been able to see each other grow and progress through their game, it just allows you to be able to trust what they’re doing so you can do what you need to do and not worry about anybody else’s role on this team.”
The one position on the line that doesn’t have a returning starter is center with the graduation of Dylan Utter, and Conrad, who split time with Knevel at right tackle last year, is battling it out with redshirt sophomore Michael Decker. Whoever emerges is going to play a vital role for the offense.
“The center has to start it all. So it’s all on Cole’s shoulders, and then Decker. The center has to be a smart guy.”
Conrad is getting the first crack at the first-string reps, but the coaches are giving Decker a chance to prove what he’s capable of as well after working behind Utter last season.
“I think it’s a good battle,” Cavanaugh said. “Just need to keep growing, both of them. I think we’ve got two good prospects in there, so it’s fun to watch. Cole’s probably a little bit ahead right now … I think he’s a little more physical and a little better probably with technique.”
Conrad has only worked primarily at center for less than a full offseason, but Foster is already comfortable playing next to him.
“When you understand that a guy knows his role on the team and knows exactly what’s going on, then you’re able to do your part so much easier,” Foster said. “Not second-guessing your center is how you get a good team and I’m happy to have someone like Cole there.”
Foster has been in the program for quite some time, but despite his talent has less game experience on offense than most of the others because of a knee injury that cost him all but three games in 2016.
“My motivator is to be able to see that first game,” Foster said. “I was starting coming into the season [last year] and then I got injured the week before. Coming back the last couple of games was great, but I want to be able to see a whole season.”
Coach Mike Riley initially ruled Foster out for the season, but after using a redshirt his freshman year despite being healthy, getting a year of eligibility back was not an option and so Foster rehabbed hard and got cleared to start the last three games of the season, his first three starts as a Husker.
“I needed that, definitely needed to see myself out there against D-I players,” Foster said. “That was one big thing that was my motivator, that and being able to at least get some time out there with my big brother, [tight end Trey Foster].”
With a few games and a full offseason under his belt, Foster seems poised for the kind of season many expected him to have in 2016 so long as he can stay healthy.
“He’s doing great,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s in great shape I think, strong, looks good, he loves what he’s doing, tough, really works at his craft; he’s a good football player.”
Gates, Foster, Conrad, Farmer, Knevel.
With the rest of the team going through a transition period, the offensive line has to be a rock for Nebraska, and Cavanaugh said he has faith that his unit is up for the task.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.