The last 18 months have been hectic for Donovan Raiola. He left the NFL and Chicago Bears to become offensive line coach at Nebraska. His move was reported the same week as former offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s arrival at a time of mass coaching shift. Former Bears coach Matt Nagy spoke highly of Raiola, who former head coach Scott Frost said brought a history of winning as a coach and a player to Nebraska.
Nebraska’s feast-or-famine 2022 offense aligned with just four victories. The offensive line barred its fair share of blame for those ills. Administration made a coaching change, clouding the coaching staff in uncertainty. Raiola emerged through the turbulence as the only holdover from the previous staff with an offensive line room filled with supportive players. Now, Raiola enters the second season as Nebraska’s offensive line coach with full support from his fellow coaches and the players.
“It’s a blessing to be here again for my second year,” Raiola told Greg Sharpe on Monday’s episode of Sports Nightly. “It’s a process with offensive line play, right? They learn new technique new kind of language. Everything was new last year. I’m just really excited going into my second year with these guys and that comfort level is just different.”
Raiola complimented the line’s cohesion during spring ball. Offensive linemen who spoke with media in the spring not only acknowledged Raiola but adopted his philosophy of moving as one collective set of eyes. Raiola said he’s seen the line grow more comfortable with that philosophy. Head coach Matt Rhule and various Husker players noted the offensive line often moves as a collective unit when not in football meetings.
“They love being around each other,” he said. “Them being together all the time is special. It’s a special thing.”
The offensive line continues to grow in a new offense with new terminology. Raiola said the unit is staying focused on increasing the standard and making improvements.
Sharpe went through and highlighted each offensive lineman with Raiola, who complimented them all. He started by mentioning Teddy Prochazka, who was limited in the spring. Raiola said Prochazka has already taken steps to improve his body, movement and conditioning. “He’s ready to go,” Raiola said simply. “He’s back and he’s had an offseason of workouts, and offseason training. I’m really excited for Teddy moving forward.” Prochazka’s season effectively ended in the Oklahoma game, after which former interim head coach Mickey Joseph said the Elkhorn South graduate would redshirt. Prochazka returns at full strength this fall as a redshirt sophomore.
Raiola complimented Turner Corcoran for his leadership, as well as his strength and mobility. The offensive line coach is excited to see even more improvement out of Corcoran into his junior season this fall. Ethan Piper also gained praise for his energy and reliability. Raiola said the Norfolk Catholic graduate can play guard or center and has grown into a leadership role. Bryce Benhart garnered praise from Rhule during the spring. Raiola said Benhart improved his strength and is continually growing. The offensive line coach anticipates a big year from the junior. Non-scholarship linemen Keegan Manning and Dylan Parrot were also complimented for their push in the line room.
Nouredin Nouili’s return to the field is widely welcomed. Raiola said he’s been “working his butt off” and is still learning aspects of the new system. Raiola also said getting Nouili back on the field helps the offensive line’s unity. Henry Lutovksy should play a big role in the upcoming season, Raiola said. The Iowa native is a hard-working sponge who follows each instruction. Raiola noted he’s also becoming stronger and more experienced at this point. Justin Evans-Jenkins is “as tough as they come” and continues to develop into a promising offensive lineman, Raiola said.
The Huskers also dipped into the transfer portal to gain three offensive linemen. The most immediately impactful one is likely Ben Scott, the former starting center at Arizona State. Raiola noted he’s a smart player who is settling into the group. The offensive line coach is excited for Scott’s immersion into the unit this fall. Jacob Hood (Georgia) and Tyler Knaak (Utah) both transferred to Nebraska as well. Hood’s move came in December while Knaak is the lone arrival from the post-spring portal window.
“They both working hard,” Raiola said. “Still figuring out and getting up to the standard. The older guys who have been here are really helping them along.”
Among local offensive linemen, Gunner Gottula stands out. Gottula gained praise from both Rhule and Raiola in the spring as an early enrollee. The former Southeast Knight is learning from the older linemen and, Raiola said, has already grown exponentially in the last sixth months. Raiola said Gottula is big enough and tough enough to play both guard and tackle. The Huskers are also adding Creighton Prep graduate Sam Sledge and Scottsbluff graduate Brock Knutson. Raiola described Sledge as focused and conscientious, while Knutson is working hard to get up to speed and meet the line’s standard.
The offensive line coach approved the move to natural grass practice fields. Rhule and Nebraska replaced one turf practice field with natural grass, giving the program two natural grass practice fields and two turf fields (the indoor field at Hawks and the turf inside Memorial Stadium). Raiola said the accumulative toll practicing on turf takes on knees, hips and joints is noted as players get older.