Nebraska averaged seven yards a rush (adjusted for sacks) against Rutgers in the 2020 season finale last December. It had 11 explosive runs, including four that gained at least 30 yards. That game, in a lot of ways, showcased the Nebraska offense pretty accurately—potent, but still mistake prone. NU fumbled the ball five times (losing two) and threw a pair of interceptions, and was tackled behind the line of scrimmage 10 times.
But, it won the second half 21-7 and completely outmuscled the Scarlet Knights from a yardage gained standpoint (365-59). NU ran for 258 yards in the second half alone. And as the Huskers have opened spring practice, we’ve heard that game brought up a handful of times.
One of the biggest reasons: the o-line from that game. Matt Farniok moved on to prepare for the NFL Draft (Brenden Jaimes opted out before the game to do the same), but he’s the only guy who isn’t returning. Turner Corcoran, Ethan Piper, Cam Jurgens, and Bryce Benhart helped Nebraska to what many viewed as the best half of football of the season and they’re entering into the spring as the heavy favorites to retain their jobs.
It was critical man,” line coach Greg Austin said Wednesday when asked about getting in-game reps for the young guys like Benhart, Piper, and Corcoran.
Particularly Corcoran, who earned the start in the final game as a first-year player, the first to do so at left tackle in program history.
“You talk about a guy that’s making his first start and just the jitters that come along with that, he did a nice job. He did a really good job in that last game against Rutgers,” Austin said. “It seemed like he handled it like the man (and) the player he is. He’s a very mature kid and we’re expecting some big things moving forward from him.”
The 6-foot-6 Kansas native made three appearances total on the year. He was a top-50 recruit coming out of high school, so expectations were understandably high. He could win this left tackle job going into the new season and make it back-to-back years in which the Huskers had a second-year freshman starting at tackle.
Benhart did it last season.
“There were flashes last year where he was pretty dadgum good,” Austin said. Flashes are just that, though. The next step, expectedly, is being more consistent with it. “The game is slowing down for him. As a freshman, especially early in the season, everything is a (learning experience). ‘Damn, I gotta learn that, I gotta learn that, I gotta learn that.’ So for him, it’s being consistent now that he’s learned some of the natural lessons you’ve got to learn at that position. That’s what I talk to him about now.”
Perhaps Benhart can help Corcoran out with some of the first-year jitter stuff if Nebraska does indeed trot those two out on the edges. They were signed with the expectation they’d become the two pillars of NU’s o-line.
They have competition, though. Nebraska’s in a make-or-break year offensively, so don’t expect it’ll roll with youth just for development’s sake. They need to earn the job.
“There’s guys like Brant Banks, Jimmy Fritzsche’s coming along well. Surprise guy is Nouri (Nouili). Ezra Miller is stepping out there as well,” Austin said. “We’ve got a nice little stable of tackles. Teddy (Prochazka) has impressed me so far. We’ve got a lot of young blood out there that can mix it up.”
Banks has been the backup tackle Nebraska has consistently championed since his arrival on campus. A 6-foot-7 guy, he could maybe even factor in elsewhere on the line. Nouili, the Colorado State transfer, has quietly made moves since getting to Lincoln and it’s interesting that Nebraska is using him all over the place.
A 6-foot-4 guy, he’s competing at both tackle and guard for playing time.
Same goes for Miller, a highly-touted high school prospect who transferred in last year from Iowa.
“You never know why a guy comes or transfers or does this or that, but Ezra’s been awesome since he’s been here,” Austin said. They like the effort and the athleticism. He’s coachable, Austin says. There are some technique issues that need cleaning up, but Austin says “I’m expecting some big things out of him as he’s in this program and develops.”
The last part of that reads as though maybe he’s still a bit away, though. And Nebraska has an open spot that needs filling right now.
Farniok’s vacated right guard position is a focus of a lot of people, but in and outside the program.
“There’s a lot of bodies that we’re rotating in at that position to find the best player but then also the best combination between guard/tackle (and) guard/center/guard,” Austin said.
Maybe finding a fifth starter and solidifying the top line of the depth chart isn’t the priority this spring. Maybe it’s just about finding the best seven or eight guys to take into fall camp and see what happens.
Nebraska isn’t short on options.
Because in addition to Miller and Nouili and Banks, it has upperclassmen in Matt Sichterman and Broc Bando who will have a say in the guard spots. And you also have Trent Hixson, a former walk-on placed on scholarship ahead of the 2019 campaign. Hixson started the entire year at left guard before losing the spot last offseason to Piper.
“He probably started a year too early,” Austin said. Now, he’s pulling double-duty as guard and as a backup center. “I’m pretty pumped about where he is as a center. … Trent has played all three positions inside—left guard, right guard, and center. A lot of value in that.”
So if he’s not looking to necessarily fill the job right away, what is Austin looking for from the position in general?
“The ability to move people inside, the ability to hold a firm pocket in terms of the depth, and then also be a really good complement in terms of the center and the tackle,” Austin said. “I’ve been around good players, but not good team players at guard. You’ve got to be the ultimate team player at the guard position.
“You’ve got to make your tackle better, you’re posting a lot of blocks, when you’re in a double-team you’re responsible for really establishing the line of scrimmage. That’s the standard for guards. How well can you hammer the line of scrimmage? Can you re-establish the line of scrimmage? Can you hold firm in protection? That’s the standard and that’s the quality of a good guard.”
The o-line didn’t meet expectations last year. The offense overall wants to be more explosive this year, and the o-line will have to be the catalyst for those plays to develop. Austin says he has a lot of competition, and that’s always a good problem to have.
“Iron sharpens iron,” he said. And with Nebraska still in the early, early stages of spring work, Austin just wants to see who heats up.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.