Last season, Nebraska had a clear starting five along the offensive line heading into the season: Nick Gates, Jerald Foster, Dylan Utter, Tanner Farmer and David Knevel.
Then, about a week before the season, Foster suffered a knee injury that knocked him out for most of the season. Midway through the season, Farmer missed most of two games with an ankle injury. Both tackles suffered ankle injuries as well, with Knevel missing some time and Gates playing through it.
When Foster went down, walk-on tackle Sam Hahn stepped in at right guard. When Farmer was on the shelf, Corey Whitaker took his place. When Knevel could not continue, walk-on Cole Conrad started the last five games at right tackle.
“We’ve had a lot of different situations over the last couple years but that’s football and that’s coaching,” offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said.
This year, at least for the moment, Nebraska looks healthy heading into the season. Gates, Foster, Farmer and Knevel are all back, and Conrad — who earned a scholarship based on his play last season and his work during the offseason — has moved to center and won the battle for the starting spot.
However, Hahn and Whitaker have moved on, leaving almost no experience whatsoever behind the starters. The second unit includes three redshirt freshmen and two redshirt sophomores who have played primarily on special teams.
Who will be the next man up if misfortune were to strike? Matt Farniok, the 6-foot-6, 315-pound redshirt freshman out of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, might be the answer.
“I’m excited about Matt,” Cavanaugh said. “Matt’s gotten better and better. He had a good spring, he developed throughout spring, he’s had some great practices throughout fall camp. He’s played tackle, he’s played guard. He’s done a great job.”
Cavanaugh compared Farniok to Conrad in terms of versatility and the ability to play multiple positions, though his primary spot right now is second-string right tackle behind Knevel.
“I think he’s just a tough guy,” Cavanaugh said. “He loves it. He loves it every day. He hustles his rear end off. I just can’t say enough about that. That’s a love affair that he has and he wants to be a great player. That comes from within. He just loves football and he’s a grinder.”
“We need him, so he’s got to be ready to play.”
Gates, who earned the starting right tackle spot as a redshirt freshman during Mike Riley’s first season in Lincoln, thinks he will be ready indeed.
“He’s definitely learned a lot this spring and this fall,” Gates said. “I think he’s pretty ready to go. He’s been in the weight room this winter and summer — he worked out right across from me and I could tell he hit it hard and he got strong. He could go in at any moment and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”
The tackle position has been fairly shallow in terms of talent in recent years for the Huskers, but one need only listen to Cavanaugh talk about young linemen like Farniok and true freshman Brendan Jaimes to come away with a sense of hope and belief in the future.
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.