Mailbag: The Huskers' Offensive Line
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Mailbag: The Huskers’ Offensive Line, Rivalries and More

October 25, 2016

Welcome to Wisconsin week, people. When the call for this week’s mailbag questions went out, we got a lot back and we mean a lot. There are some weeks where all of the questions will lean toward one specific topic but not this week. Everything was pretty much on the table, which meant we just went for it. There’s a little about rivalries, a little about the Huskers’ offensive line and plenty more.

Brandon Vogel, Jacob Padilla, Jake Jensen and Erin Sorensen answer your questions in this week’s Hail Varsity mailbag.

Q: Is Nebraska and Wisconsin a rivalry yet? – A.F., Lincoln, Neb.

JJ: If Nebraska wins this Saturday, absolutely.

BV: When Nebraska entered the Big Ten, this was the one I (among many others) identified as having the best rivalry potential. I still feel like it’s on the cusp, though I am slightly surprised by how close Iowa is to that status right now. I mean, it makes some sense, but that one has made greater gains than Wisconsin has at this point. I’ll still take the Badgers to get there first, however.

Q: What’s your favorite nickname for Wisconsin? Wiscy? Sconnies? Whatever else there is? – R.B., Lincoln, Neb.

JP: I usually go with Wiscy. I like short abbreviations because I’m lazy.

JJ: Badgers because, in my opinions, it’s one of the top five mascots in college sports and the number one live animal mascot.

BV: I generally eschew nicknames. The rise of “Sparty” for Michigan State is, for some reason, one of my least favorite things in college football.

ES: I’m with Brandon. I’m not a big fan of nicknames, especially ones that are based off mascots. No one is calling Nebraska the ‘Herbies.’ I’ll just call Wisconsin… Wisconsin.

Q: Will we field a healthy offensive line versus Wisconsin? – M.P.

JP: Probably not. David Knevel hasn’t been healthy for quite a while and though he keeps toughing it out and starting games, he’s been incredibly unlucky and keeps getting rolled up on. I doubt Nick Gates will be fully healthy either, but hopefully with another week of recovery he’ll be able to put up a better effort than he did against the Boilermakers.

Q: What’s the proper way to throw the bones? Is it right over left, or left over right? – K.B., Omaha, Neb.

JJ: Left over right, and you’ve got to bring it when you throw the bones. You can’t go weak when you’re throwin’ bones.

BV: Jason Peter will tell you that the real key to a successful bones throw is hitting the forearms together three times. Without that, you’re just crossing your arms.

Q: Wisconsin losing its NT and ILB seems like it could be as helpful as getting our O-line healthy. Accurate? – Z.H.

JJ: Wisconsin is now down two inside linebackers in its 3-4 scheme, which is always a tough blow for any defense to deal with, but I would argue that missing its nose guard is a much tougher blow to Wisconsin.

Wisconsin will replace Cichy with Ryan Connelly, who has played extensively this season, playing almost the entire game in Wisconsin’s victory over LSU. So while it isn’t ideal, at least Wisconsin has a somewhat experienced replacement for Cichy.

Losing Olive Sagapolu is much tougher to replace, as Wisconsin will have to rely on true freshman Garrett Rand, whose only extensive game action came in last week’s game against Iowa. Also, Dylan Utter matches up much better with the 275-pound Rand than he would have against the 340-pound Sagapolu.

Q: Can the volleyball team start playing a freshman just to sweep the #B1G weekly awards? – Z.H.

BV: That would be nice, but if it were up to Cook he’d redshirt every freshman. He knows that’s not reality, and he’s played plenty of freshmen over the years, but I think he’s pretty good with where things are at right now.

Q: How did Huskers allow volleyball and football to be at the same time? – S.S., Neb.

JP: Volleyball times are mostly set in advance while football times are set as the season goes along. John Cook said Nebraska did everything it could to try to start the game earlier, but Northwestern said no.

BV: Don’t think that bodes well for Northwestern’s chances on Saturday.

Q: Do the cheer and dance teams have an official Husker red lipstick they all wear? If so, what? – A.D.

ES: I reached out to Erynn Butzke, Nebraska’s Spirit Squad Head Coach, for specifics. She said the cheer squad can choose their own lipstick but it has to “read” as a true red, not burgundy or orange. As for the Scarlets dance team, they use Red Red Red by Clinique with their own lip liner that works with their skin tone. She also mentioned a good red by LipSense and another liquid version by Sephora.

Q: Any chance our D-line can record a meaningful sack against Wisconsin’s O-line? Seems like most of our sacks come from LBs. – M.G., Olathe, Kans.

JP: Well, the linebackers have 2.5 sacks so far this season while the the defensive line has 11, so that isn’t exactly accurate. However, your point that the Huskers need to get to the quarterback with more frequency is a good one. I’m not sure that you can expect any more than what you’re getting out of Ross Dzuris and the interior linemen. The most likely source of improvement lies with Freedom Akinmoladun, who has had somewhat of a disappointing season production-wise with just two sacks through seven games. Either Akinmoladun needs to start getting home or redshirt freshman Alex Davis is going to have to make quick progress and earn more snaps.

JJ: Wisconsin’s right tackle, Jacob Maxwell, is hobbled coming into this game and his backup, David Edwards ,is a redshirt freshman, so watch for Ross Dzuris to have an impact from his defensive end spot. Also Kevin Maurice has come on as a pass rusher during Big Ten play. If Nebraska can get him isolated on Beau Benzschawel, he could have a big day. I wouldn’t hold my breath on Freedom getting too much pressure. Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin’s left tackle, is a darn good offensive lineman.

Q: If you could eat Chipotle with a current Husker (staff or player), who would it be and why? – H.H.

JJ: Mike Riley because I feel like he would be nice enough to pay extra for the guac.

ES: This is actually tougher question that I expected. I feel like Riley, Cavanaugh and Kenny Wilhite would all be fun staff picks. As for players, give me the special teams. I imagine it would be a lot of fun to hang out with Jordan Ober, Drew Brown, Caleb Lightbourn, Zack Darlington and everyone else. After the manicure photos, I’m especially convinced of this.

Q: Why, when we see pictures of some stadiums when they are empty, do we see some areas that appear to have stadium seats? – O.

ES: My assumption has always been that those are important seats. At Nebraska, those are the club level seats so they’re a little nicer (and more expensive). I assume the same about other stadiums. Although, I have noticed that sometimes stadiums haven’t removed those back rests people buy per game and those will make it in a shot. Could be either but this is something I’ll keep an eye on now.

Q: For a large majority of the last two games, NU has had 3 walk-ons playing the majority of the snaps on the OL. I’m all for walk ons, but that’s a little too many in one department. What has caused the lack of depth on the OL? Recruiting misses, lack of development, poor roster management? – 3.L.C.

JP: A big part of the current state of the offensive line has been injuries. There’s a very good chance Jerald Foster would have been the team’s second-best lineman after Nick Gates. That would have left Sam Hahn as the reserve utility lineman, which isn’t a bad role for a walk-on. However, Hahn was pressed into a starting role when Foster went down, which bumped Cole Conrad into Hahn’s utility role. I’m not sure who is behind Conrad.

Let’s look at the class breakdown.

Seniors: Dylan Utter (walk-on success story) and Corey Whitaker (reserve)
Juniors: David Knevel (starter), Zach Hannon (?), Dwayne Johnson (?)
Sophomores: Nick Gates (Beast), Foster (injured), Farmer (Starter)
Freshmen: Christian Gaylord (?), Michael Decker (?), Jalin Barnett (?)
Redshirts: Matt Farniok, Boe Wilson, John Raridon, Bryan Brokop

That’s 10 scholarship linemen not counting Foster or the redshirting players. Four of them are starters, one is a rotation reserve and the other five are not in the picture. That is the problem.

The upperclassmen recruited by the previous staff are Whitaker, Knevel, Hannon and Johnson (Utter earned his scholarship, so I wouldn’t count him with those others) and only Knevel has earned a starting role. Hannon and Johnson haven’t worked out at all, and Whitaker is behind Hahn on the depth chart.

Credit to Pelini and Co. for that sophomore class. Gates, Foster and Farmer all look like hits.

It’s too early to pass judgment on the freshmen. You’d like to think at least one of the scholarship players would be able to beat out a walk-on after a year on campus to at least add some depth, but I think the primary reason for the heavy use of walk-ons is the recruiting misses among the upperclassmen by the previous coaching staff.

Q: I’ve heard how intense Camp Randall is. Is it more or less intense than Memorial? Why? – .D.

JJ: Memorial Stadium is catching up, but few college stadiums can match the rowdiness of Camp Randall. It is considered one of the top party schools in America for a reason; it’s students and fans know how to get crazy on a Saturday night.

BV: It’s definitely a party atmosphere there. The vaunted student section won’t be full at kickoff. That’s their thing, they arrive en masse after the game has started. But when they get there, you definitely know it.

Q: What can we expect from the offense that will be in an intimidating atmosphere in Camp Randall Stadium? – A.D., Neb.

JJ: I’d expect a lot of different screens to slow Wisconsin’s blitz schemes. Wisconsin loves to blitz and is very good at it, Nebraska will need to be effective with their screen and short passing game to be able to effectively move the ball and not get Tommy killed behind their banged up offensive line.

JP: Nebraska went with a lot of quick passes against Purdue knowing that the tackles were not going to be able to hold up long in pass protection. I’m guessing we’ll see more of that on Saturday, and the wide receivers are going to have to make some big plays. It will be interesting to see who can win in the trenches with both sides banged up as they are, but I probably wouldn’t bet on Nebraska in that area..

Q: Are the injured O-line players slowing their recovery by practicing and playing? – K.A.B.

JP: I’m not a doctor or a trainer, so I have no idea.

BV: It feels like Nebraska is just sort of out of options. Would it be best to be able to give Gates or Knevel a week off? Probably, but if that was the best on-field option I think Nebraska would’ve taken it.

Q: Which secondary player, linebacker and defensive line player is most impressive this year? – F., Denver, Colo.

JP: Secondary – Chris Jones. Kieron Williams has turned some heads, Nate Gerry has reverted to his sophomore form and Aaron Williams has excelled at nickel, but Chris Jones has been one of the best cover corners in the Big Ten.

Linebacker – This is a tough one. They seem to be taking turns. Michael Rose-Ivey got off to a great start, but his play has tailed off a bit. Josh Banderas missed a lot of tackles early, but he’s been a machine the last two weeks. Dedrick Young has been his usual solid yet unspectacular self. None of the back-ups are playing much.

Defensive line – Ross Dzuris got off to a great start, and Carlos Davis has been nearly unblockable in his limited snaps, but I’m going with Kevin Maurice. Maurice was the last senior left after all of the defensive tackle departures, and as such the Huskers were going to have to rely heavily on him this year. Through seven games, he’s given them everything they’d hope for, and I’d say even more as well.

JJ: Secondary – All of them, but the most impressive for me has been nickelback Aaron Williams. His games against Illinois and Indiana were fantastic, as he locked down whomever he was lined up across.

Linebacker – Dedrick Young has been the most consistent linebacker all season, but Josh Banderas has really improved since Big Ten play began. This Wisconsin game is tailor made for both Banderas and Young, so it should be fun to watch.

Defensive line – Let’s give Carlos Davis some love. His stat sheet doesn’t jump off the page, but he has done a tremendous job of providing depth and a spark off the bench behind Maurice and Stoltenberg. He has improved with each game, and Wisconsin is another game that fits his skill set perfectly.

Q: Which QB is faster – Lee or POB? – C.H.

JJ: O’Brien is sneaky fast, so I’ll go with him. Both are better runners than you’d think, they just aren’t as good at running the ball as Armstrong.

Q: Could they brace Cethan’s elbow like Pats do Gronk’s? – J.C.

JJ: This may be selfish of me, but I don’t think I’d play with a half-healed dislocated elbow unless I was getting paid millions of dollars like Gronk or Watt. Dislocated elbows hurt.

ES: While I would never actually mean this, I did joke last week that they should just really pad that thing down and let him go out and swing his arm at people. I’m sure that would go over well.

Q: What is Mike Riley’s history with trick plays? Does he ever call any? – A.

JJ: I have a hunch that De’Mornay Pierson-El will throw a pass before the Wisconsin game is over… just a hunch.

Q: I know for media it’s not a far question, but what’s your first choice of what to do right after a Husker game? Just curious what the majority would prefer because as much as I like tuning into another game, I do enjoy the drive home from Lincoln where I can decompress, enjoy the day a bit and listen to the post game radio for about an hour! – R.B.

BV: For me postgame is really the morning after a game and I’m generally looking to absorb reactions from the Nebraska game first, read what others are saying, pull up podcasts of the postgame shows, etc. From there, I’m looking to dig a little deeper on what happened everywhere else in the country because on game day all you’re really seeing is scores from those other games.

ES: As for me, I always tune into whatever Pac-12 game is on late at night. I don’t care who he is playing or how late it is. I watch that until I realize I really need to go to bed. If it’s early enough, I’ll go get something to eat. Nebraska takes pretty good care of its media in the press box, but I missed the pizza after last Saturday’s game. That meant food was on the agenda first, then #Pac12AfterDark.

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