Someone said it felt like groundhog day. I get that.
“We made too many mistakes there last year between penalties and just on this block here or there, that sometimes goes along with some inexperience,” Husker head coach Scott Frost said this week when asked about the offensive line. “If there’s one group that I think is probably going to make the biggest jump this offseason on the offense, it’s that group.
“Looking forward to what they can become.”
O-line and potential: an offseason partnership that tells each other they need some space once the season gets going. At least, that’s been the case of late. It’s OK to be a little reticent to jump on board the “2021 o-line’s gonna be great” train.
The tone of Frost’s comments this week weren’t all that different from the way the Husker coaching staff talked about the offensive line a year ago.
Line coach Greg Austin publicly pushed left tackle Brenden Jaimes to become one of the best left tackles in the conference. Offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said that group would be the strength of the offense. Nebraska said it wanted to lean on a bell cow running back and an improved blocking unit.
Returns weren’t disappointing. Just mixed. Nebraska ranked second in the Big Ten in rushing yards per carry and per game. It ranked 31st nationally in power success rate (short-yardage success on third or fourth down). It ranked 36th nationally in line yards, a metric designed to credit some of the rushing success to the blockers up front.
In certain instances, the quarterback run helped the run game look more impactful on paper than it was in practice. Strength in numbers wasn’t a straight-line connection to o-line performance. Nebraska gave up sacks on standard downs too often.
It wasn’t bad—I don’t think anyone would say the offensive line was the biggest culprit for the 3-5 campaign—but it wasn’t a true strength.
Still, Frost saw enough from the guys coming back to feel encouraged about the trajectory.
“We started that last game at Rutgers with four underclassmen, three of them being freshmen,” Frost said. That includes Bryce Benhart at right tackle, Ethan Piper at left guard, and Turner Corcoran. Add in Cam Jurgens at center, who is very much still in the developmental stage of his career. “We’ve got some really good young talent at that position, some veterans that are going to compete for time and I think we’ll get more talented on the offensive line.”
There are walk-ons like Nouri Nouili and Ezra Miller who were key guys at their previous homes. There are experienced reserves like Broc Bando and Trent Hixson who have been waiting in the wings in Lincoln for some time.
The incoming class of freshmen offer tremendous size, a continued theme among recent crops of linemen signees. The youngsters who have already been in the program for a minute have a maturity about them you don’t always get. The vets should have a chip on their shoulder.
(Do we consider Jurgens a vet? Comparatively, maybe. Either way, he’s got both—a maturity and a chip on his shoulder. He’s got the staff’s trust moving forward. That’s important. I think he’ll turn a corner this offseason with health.)
The Twin Towers at Tackle (as they shall henceforth be known) are ready to go up. Benhart and Corcoran, the two guys you penciled in as pillars of a high-end offense when they were recruited, should be the two guys protecting on the edge next season.
Nebraska is understandably excited about both stepping into full-time roles.
“I think Bryce knows some things he needs to work on, but for a redshirt freshman out there playing in the Big Ten, he had a really good year and did a lot of good things. He’s committed to working hard and excited about him,” Frost said. “I’m excited about Ethan Piper continuing to develop. Turner Corcoran came in at left tackle last year and we didn’t miss a beat with him out there after losing a senior for the last game. Brant Banks is another kid in our program that is young and really talented.”
The thinking here is that with legitimate size up front and legitimate depth, competition in the winter, the spring, and in fall camp should give Nebraska a group that can lean on opposing defenses in 2021.
Yes, Nebraska is very much in a “show me, don’t just tell me” stage right now, but I keep telling myself scars from past belief shouldn’t make this group of young linemen any less intriguing.
The group might not be a model of consistency with so many young pieces on it moving forward, but Frost’s general sentiment regarding the group pretty closely matched how I felt about them when I scored them.
I wrote then: the group feels like it has a higher ceiling than a Nebraska offensive line has had in some time. It would seem that Frost agrees.