In the days of Husker glory, the offensive line set the tone for Nebraska on each and every play. The Pipeline was one of the most feared units in college football, clearing the way for the ball-carriers and pancaking any puny defensive linemen in their path.
With three new starters and two returners switching positions, the 2016 iteration of the Nebraska offensive line is far from proven. However, offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh has spoken highly of the line’s talent. Sophomore Nick Gates, sophomore Jerald Foster, senior Dylan Utter, sophomore Tanner Farmer and junior David Knevel have emerged as the top unit, and a select group of fans saw them line up together and battle against the defense in live action as the Huskers held their first scrimmage of the fall on Saturday.
“It felt good,” Utter said. “It was nice to go out there and run a scrimmage because we did more plays than we usually do in practice. In practice we usually rep four or five at a time and the scrimmage you go through a whole series until you get stopped. So kind of seeing what shape you’re in football-wise was kind of nice. As a whole O-line, I thought we did pretty well. We’re coming along really well. All of us bring a different trait to the table and we’re really jelling. To go out there in a game situation, it was kind of nice to see how we did.”
Cavanaugh said he likes the physicality his group has shown coming off the ball. In the scrimmage, the line set the edge well for outside runs but struggled a bit at times trying to run between the tackles.
“I thought we ran the ball pretty well,” Gates said. “There are some things we want to work on. Inside zone can probably be a little more crisp and things like that, but overall I thought we had a pretty good first Saturday.”
Some of the lack of success up the middle can be attributed to strong play by the defensive tackles, Kevin Maurice and Mick Stoltenberg. However, Gates is holding his line to a Pipeline-esque standard.
“They’re pretty good guys, but it doesn’t matter what they do,” Gates said. “It’s a matter of what we do. We have to focus on us. We could have the No. 1 D-tackle in the nation in front of us, we still better move him and get him up to the backer. So there’s no excuses for that.”
Gates is transitioning from right tackle to left this year after a strong redshirt freshman season in 2015. He said he’s settled in this fall after struggling a bit with the transition in the first 10 practices of the spring and felt comfortable in his role on Saturday. Gates also said his chemistry with left guard Jerald Foster is strong, and that extends to the rest of the line as well.
Utter is the other lineman switching positions as he is sliding over from right guard to center. Cavanaugh praised Utter’s competitive nature, his intelligence and the way he prepares.
“I think I’ve improved a lot at center,” Utter said. “It’s kind of my natural position so transitioning hasn’t been too hard for me. Maybe just a couple snaps here and there but overall I think the transition has been really good.”
Perhaps the biggest question mark is at right tackle, where Knevel takes over after spending the last two years as a reserve, working on his body and his technique. Gates, however, seems to have total faith in his 6-foot-9, 320-pound teammate.
“He’s good,” Gates said. “He’s going to be a good player for us this year. We’ll definitely need him. He’s stepped up a lot. He’s gotten a lot stronger in the weight room and he pushed himself a lot. He’s definitely good – he’s going to be a good player.”
The screen game has been an area of emphasis over the offseason, and Cavanaugh still isn’t satisfied with where the Huskers are in that area. Gates said the practice format has something to do with that as the defense is so familiar with the offense and knows when the screen is coming.
“Just getting out there and breaking down, just trying to thud ‘em up is probably the hardest part,” Gates said about blocking on screen plays. “Just getting them going – they know our plays and they read it pretty well, that’s probably the hardest part, is just going against your defense every day and they know what’s coming.”
However, for Cavanaugh, it’s all about technique and body control. The key for the screen game is to get the 300-pound linemen to the second level to block downfield for the running back – not an easy feat.
“We just have to stop running by guys; it’s all about your body control,” Cavanaugh said. “You have to come out under control, and if your target is outside . . . if he’s sitting there just get him covered up and get it going.”
To get to where the line needs to be to have success this season, Cavanaugh and his unit are usually the first to the practice field, getting in extra technique work before practice starts, and the rest of the team has noticed.
“Coach Cavanaugh is working them a little bit earlier, before practice even starts to get them out here and get them ready,” senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. said. “I think they’re doing a great job.”
Cavanaugh’s task as Nebraska’s offensive line coach is to rebuild the Pipeline, and he hasn’t shied away from that lofty standard one bit. Confidence in the line around the program seems high and recruiting has seen an uptick. The next step is to prove it on the field.
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.