Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Coaches Still Looking for Depth and Solution to Nebraska’s Offensive Line Quandary

January 20, 2023

During his Early Signing Day press conference, Matt Rhule said he didn’t believe the offensive line was the issue at Nebraska last season. Offensive line coach Donovan Raiola impressed the head coach with his work ethic and players’ respect during the transition. Raiola impressed Rhule again in the interview for the job he already held. Rhule retained Raiola and Nebraska’s offensive line immediately became a priority.

“We are going to have a good offensive line next year,” Rhule said during Early National Signing Day. “I like the guys who are in that room already. I think we have to have an identity on offense of what we are going to do. When you are trying to figure out if you are a throw it or run team, you put those guys in hard positions.”

It’s worth noting the outlying issues last year. Raiola, in his first season at Nebraska, working with the program’s third offensive coordinator in five years, oversaw a shrinking room without infrastructural consistency. First, Nouredin Nouili received a season-long suspension in the summer. He started seven games at left guard and played in every game in 2021. Kevin Williams Jr. played in four games before a season-ending injury. He entered the transfer portal after the season. Elkhorn South graduate Teddy Prochazka played in three games before a season-ending injury. That came after his true freshman season ended abruptly in injury after five games.

Also, Nebraska’s offensive identity shifted with the addition of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. The Huskers threw the ball on 48.08% of snaps in 2022, up from 44.56% the previous year. Keep in mind, Nebraska staged late comebacks in 2021 when then-quarterback Adrian Martinez went to the air. In 2022, the Huskers led in 10 of their 12 games. Former head coach Scott Frost brought Whipple on from Pittsburgh, where he coached NFL quarterback Kenny Pickett and Beletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison. That working relationship dented quickly when Frost said the offense would “have to get a little more creative,” to win after the season opener. Play calling, which Frost gave up in 2022, included more quarterback-reliant runs the following two games before Frost was fired. Interim head coach Mickey Joseph stressed the importance to be physical, run the ball and shorten the game during his nine-game stint.

The Huskers ran for 1,480 net yards in 2022, a program low since 2017. Go-to running back Anthony Grant ran for 915 yards despite not getting to 50 yards in five games. In the final three games he ran for 22, 29 and 6 yards, respectively, all on at least 11 carries. In two of those games, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the Huskers were unable to consistently gain first downs and blew leads. Nebraska finished 105th in the country in first-down rate, managing at least one first down on just 63.5% of drives. In other words, the Huskers went 3-and-out on more than one of every three drives.

Nebraska’s offensive linemen were forced to adjust to a new scheme entirely again in Whipple’s pass-centric vision. A Hail Varsity review of every snap last season against FBS opponents showed 341 designed quarterback plays, vastly dropbacks but including the few designed quarterback-runs. Of those, 213 ended with passes unaffected by defensive pressure. Defensive pressure altered the throwing motion or pass destination on 95 of those plays. Defenses sacked Nebraska quarterbacks 33 times, accounting for 247 yards. It’s also worth noting Nebraska quarterbacks felt pressure, as heavy as a tackle or as light as a push from a defender during the quarterback’s followthrough, on 133 of the 341 quarterback plays.

This took a toll on whoever played quarterback. Casey Thompson missed more than two games with a nerve injury sustained on a hit while throwing against Illinois. Thompson endured the brunt of defensive pressure and contact, eventually rolling outside the pocket almost instinctually upon receiving the snap. When comfortable, Thompson went through his reads and threw with confidence. Once hit a few initial times, his decision making became more frantic. Chubba Purdy and Logan Smothers came in at different times, both without consistent success. Former walk-on Jarrett Synek, just a few seasons removed from playing at Hastings High, finished the Michigan game at quarterback. All of those quarterbacks return for 2023, along with new transfer arrival Jeff Sims.

Nebraska’s offensive line consistently improved protection after the Rutgers game, one of its more woeful outings. Thompson withstood defensive contact on seven of his first nine passes against the Scarlet Knights. In-game adjustments by defenses complicated stunts in the Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa games. Nebraska’s offense, at times, struggled to match scheme with those adjustments.

Enter the new coaching staff. Rhule himself played on the offensive line in high school. He’s a former collegiate defensive line coach and assistant offensive line coach with the New York Giants. Offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield served as assistant offensive line coach for the Carolina Panthers before returning to college as South Carolina offensive coordinator. His experience coaching in the trenches influenced how the long-time quarterback coach engineered his offense. For comparison, Whipple, a football coach since 1980, nor Frost, a college coach of 15 years, ever coached the offensive line directly.

“I know how to protect those guys now,” Satterfield said. “When I was younger I probably put them in some bad situations, five-man protections, not helping them.”

Rhule and Satterfield have both shared their excitement for the recruits Nebraska’s already gained in the 2023 class. Raiola has not been made available to media since fall camp. Nebraska gained four offensive linemen in the 2023 class, not including two who could play on either defensive or offensive line. The Huskers remain in pursuit of offensive linemen through the portal. Former Arizona State center Ben Scott is already in Lincoln but Nebraska missed on former Rhode Island lineman Ajani Cornelius, former Baylor lineman Micah Mazzccua and former Stanford lineman Walter Rouse. Coaches could still pursue linemen available or focus on internal development into spring ball and wait until the portal opens again at the beginning of May.

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