Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Five Working as One: Donovan Raiola Trying to Put His Touch on Nebraska’s O-Line

March 02, 2022

There wasn’t one Raiola at Nebraska’s first spring practice of the 2022 season, there were two.

While Donovan Raiola settles into his role as a first-time offensive line coach at the Power Five level, his brother, Dominic, a Rimington Trophy winner and former Husker All-American center, was right there with him.

“We’re lucky to have a guy like that around,” Donovan said Monday after the Huskers finished the first of 15 spring practices. “He’s right in my ear, like, ‘Hey, get this right,’ so little things like that, and just having the support from him is great.”

Donovan doesn’t say much during media sessions. Instead, he chooses to be heard on the practice field and film room with his linemen. That includes Turner Corcoran and Teddy Prochazka, two presumed starters who won’t be practicing this spring as they continue to rehab injuries. Those two not practicing doesn’t mean they’re not helping the rest of the unit. In fact, they’re coaching. Just like Donovan wants.

“We got them coaching guys up and helping and just being a part of the unit,” Donovan said of Corcoran and Prochazka. “I’m always pushing the narrative of helping each other, everything we do, we coach each other and help each other. So they’re right there, they’re right on our hips. The more the players can take control of this thing, the better off we’ll be.”

Donovan hasn’t spilled the beans on his teaching style and how it might differ from his predecessor, Greg Austin, who’s now the offensive line coach and run game coordinator at Florida International under new head coach Mike McIntyre. After one practice, Scott Frost said he was impressed with how the o-linemen have been firing off the ball. The Huskers were in just helmets for the first two days, so more will be learned once the pads start popping for real.

Until then, Donovan wants to learn about his players and find what they’re good at, just like Mark Whipple wants to do. Donovan has a couple things on his mind in terms of putting his touch on the o-line room, and they’re what he learned from the mentors in his life, including is brother, former Chicago Bears All-Pro center Olin Kreutz and Notre Dame o-line coach Harry Hiestand.

A daily attitude and effort. Even though Donovan played center at Wisconsin, he knows all about what the pipeline used to look like in Lincoln.

“Nebraska offensive lines, you watch the offensive lines from the past, the one thing you noticed from those guys in the 90s was they played so hard, and it was for each other, it was for the state of Nebraska, it was for the people,” Donovan said. “So it’s fun to watch some of the old film to see that, and that’s the biggest thing we’re trying to instill with these guys, is playing with that attitude and effort, because those are things you can control.”

For now, Nebraska’s o-line is working on the basics. Lining up correctly. Communicating. Nothing fancy just yet. Like Frost said, just firing off the ball.

“It takes a lot of thinking out of it. Sometimes when you think too much at that position, it puts you in a trance,” Donovan said.

One of the more pressing questions facing Donovan is the center position. Cam Jurgens, who started 31 games at that spot, including the last 18, is gone and showing what he’s got at the NFL combine this week in Indianapolis. Donovan said one of the traits centers need to have is understanding the 10 other guys on the field are counting on you.

The basics—get good at them. First, it’s the cadence. Second, get the ball to the quarterback cleanly.

“Then just being able to process information and then get guys blocking the right people,” Donovan said. “There’s not a certain type of, ‘Hey, you need this size, this size, this size.’ If you can get guys blocking the right people, a lot of their abilities will take care of everything else.”

Donovan knows how important the center position is. He played it. His brother played it. Kruetz played it. From those mentors, Donovan learned the center is the quarterback of the o-line. They’re expected to communicate and get others lined up correctly.

“Center is a special position. There are special people that play that position,” Donovan said. “You can’t just plug a guy in, take him from guard and move him to center if they’re not a great communicator. You kind of have to have those natural leadership qualities that come out when you get into these team settings. So you just watch the guys and see how they interact.”

Hiestand has had a major impact on Donovan and how he coaches. He was with Hiestand and the Irish for two seasons from 2015-16.

“Everything that he stands for is everything I’m trying to be,” Donovan said. “He’s a great human being, a great person off the field. The biggest thing is leading the men and creating a standard for the unit.”

The standard involves discipline and toughness. And he won’t care where it comes from, or how many have those traits inside them.

Donovan is looking for the best five linemen. If there’s more than five that he thinks can help the offense, he’s not against playing more. Sometimes, coaches worry about change affecting an o-line negatively. But with what he’s trying to accomplish in his room—five guys working as one—that shouldn’t be a problem.

“If you have eight guys who are all playing at the same level, and they’re all going to help us win, why would you keep three guys off the field if they’re all playing at the same level,” Donovan said. “If you got five, it’s always great. But if you have six, seven, eight, nine guys, you can keep everyone fresh because the technique and fundamentals don’t change.”

Donovan was asked if Dominic still had a fire inside him while he was watching the o-line practice. “What do you think,” he playfully responded.

“If you press the right buttons I’m sure you’d get it out of him,” Donovan said. “He’s older and more experienced, but I’m sure he’s still got that fire.”

But this is Donovan’s unit. His room. He’ll be the one pressing the buttons.

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