The week has finally arrived. Nebraska’s 2021 Red-White Spring Game is on Saturday. In the run up to the game, we’ve got a few storylines to potentially watch for this weekend, expanded on a little more than normal. One per day. The first was a look at Jaquez Yant. The second, a question about the passing game. Next:
What guard configurations do we see?
“You’re talking about having five guys in 2018, you got nine guys now. We’ve got nine guys that can play,” Husker offensive line coach Greg Austin said last week. “There’s competition.”
Four starters return from Nebraska’s final game of 2020—left tackle Turner Corcoran, left guard Ethan Piper, center Cameron Jurgens, and right tackle Bryce Benhart. Many expect those four to all retain their jobs heading into the new season.
In the group of players hoping to move up the ladder, Austin has an intriguing mix of talent: Matt Sichterman (6-foot-4, 315 pounds, junior), Broc Bando (6-5, 315, junior), Trent Hixson (6-4, 320, junior), Nouri Nouili (6-4, 320, sophomore) and Brant Banks (6-7, 305, redshirt freshman).
Hixson and Nouili are the only ones in that group with regular starting experience at guard. Nouili started right away for Colorado State before transferring to Lincoln. Hixson earned a scholarship and a season-long starting role at left guard in 2019 before Piper took the spot in 2020.
Seemingly, Austin is pleased with Hixson’s move over to center. Might he be able to kick out to guard again? Possible, but the talk surrounding the Omaha native this spring has been focused on his growth in the middle.
Nouili draws praise from Austin every time he’s brought up, and Nebraska has him working all over the line, both at guard and at tackle. As a tackle, he might not exactly fit the mold Nebraska has settled into for its prospects out there, but it would seem perimeter work has been necessitated by other guys getting in the way at guard.
Sichterman, a fifth-year man, had the lead for the right guard job last time Austin spoke to the media.
“Sichterman is a kid I’m very proud of, as it relates to his tenure being here,” Austin said. “Up until now he’s just kind of a backup, a quality backup. I didn’t know what he was going to be coming into spring. I knew that we were going to give him a shot. He’s taking full advantage of it. He’s done a really good job. He’s been consistent. He’s been a vocal leader.”
The last time media were able to observe practice, Sichterman was working with Piper and Bando was working with Banks. That would seem to portend Sichterman taking the job this fall. But both pairings got work with the first team.
What was said about Nouili can also be said about Banks. Nebraska seems to be quite high on Banks, a Houston native. He fits more into that tackle mold Nebraska has recruited to—long, lean, sturdy base—but NU is giving him looks at both guard and tackle to see what it has.
Sichterman has been a backup guard for Nebraska, while Banks has been a backup tackle. That’s an important distinction considering the adjustment period viewers witnessed for Matt Farniok last season.
When Nebraska takes the field for the spring game, it’ll be interesting to watch if those guard pairings—Piper and Sichterman, Banks and Bando—remain intact and if so, which sideline both of them are on.
One curiosity coming into the spring was what exactly Austin’s goal would be for the 15 practices. Would he want to settle on a five-man configuration to take into the summer months and start building some familiarity to hit the ground running in fall camp? Or, because the room is so deep, would he want to hold off on making any decisions and just find, say, nine guys who could be in the top group?
Austin wanted to see consistency from his group. It didn’t matter who was playing running back, what period they were in, who was snapping, or whatever else. Just do your job, he’d say. Austin, also Nebraska’s run game coordinator, knows Nebraska needs to be more clinical at the line of scrimmage.
So maybe it was more about finding which collection of guys could accomplish that task. If it was five, works out perfectly. If it was nine, then he has a puzzle to put together. It’s a good challenge for any position coach to have, piecing things together in a room with too many guys for too few roles.
Even if he isn’t settled on the right guard spot—maybe he isn’t even settled on the left guard or the left tackle spot, no jobs are safe for an offense that underperformed the way Nebraska’s did last year—Saturday’s scrimmage can reveal standing.
If Sichterman gets the reps with starting quarterback Adrian Martinez on the field, that would be a pretty clear indicator of what direction the race at right guard is headed. If Banks is out there playing guard, it gets interesting in a hurry.
It’s possible Nebraska can have three or four guys for two guard spots and work with a rotation during games. Such a strategy would seemingly be able to keep guys a little more fresh for later in games. It’s also possible Nebraska is just grooming the likes of Banks and Nouili to be a utility guy off the bench, capable of going in wherever whenever.
Questions, questions, questions. Hopefully Saturday can offer some clarity.