We’ve made it to the last stop of this five-part series called “Making The Jump” where we select five Huskers who need to, simply put, make the jump in 2022. That means going from contributor to standout at a position that needs it.
For the fifth installment, we’ll touch on an area that could be considered a liability last season: the offensive line.
Like many positions across the team, the offseason brought change to the Huskers’ o-line. Starting center Cam Jurgens and right guard Matt Sichterman both moved on from the program, with Jurgens declaring for the NFL Draft in December after his fourth year in the program. Jurgens came to Nebraska as a four-star tight end in 2018 but changed positions and developed into a solid center over time. The Beatrice, Neb., native started 31 career games at the position, including 16 straight. He earned third-team All-Big Ten honors from the coaches after the 2021 season, and his absence will be felt in 2022.
New faces also joined the o-line room. Former o-line coach Greg Austin was fired last November and was replaced by Donovan Raiola, the brother of Husker great Dominic Raiola. Donovan came to Lincoln after spending almost four seasons as an assistant o-line coach with the Chicago Bears.
“To me, what he coaches is really modern,” Scott Frost said of Donovan. “It’s what I believe in. He’s going to get the guys ripping off the ball and running and trying to get people moved. It’s a little different than what some other people coach. It’s what I believe in and based on our personnel and the type of offense we run, I think it’s the best thing for us. I think he’s as good a guy as there is to teach those things and what we want to get done.”
The Huskers also brought in two transfers to compete for starting spots and add depth, including Omaha native Kevin Williams Jr. from Northern Colorado and Hunter Anthony from Oklahoma State. Justin Evans-Jenkins was the lone o-line high school recruit in the 2022 class and, like many first-year linemen, will need time to grow and mature before being asked to contribute.
If the influx of highly-touted talent at the skill positions—Casey Thompson at quarterback, Trey Palmer and the four-star recruit Janiran Bonner at receiver, the No. 1-ranked junior-college running back in Anthony Grant—is to make a meaningful impact on the field next season, it will be key for the o-line to show improvement, especially in pass protection.
“I like our talent there, and we got a lot of returning experience,” Frost said of his o-line room on National Signing Day Feb. 2. “We thought we needed to add some guys to get more bodies in the room. We’re low on numbers there, too, coming off the season with a couple of departures, so we got a couple guys come in that are transfers. I’m looking forward to watching them compete against everybody else. We got a couple guys who are going to be out for spring up front, so there’s gonna be a lot of reps.
“There are some guys coming back that played a whole bunch last year that I’m looking forward to have Donnie (Donovan) work with to see if we can make some strides. I don’t know for sure yet where the pieces will fit together up front, but spring ball help us tell that.”
Last season Nebraska ranked 60th in the country in opportunity rate, a Football Outsiders’ statistic designed to measure how often an o-line “does its job” and the ball carrier gains at least 5 yards. Considering there’s 130 Division I FBS teams, the Huskers were a little above average at run blocking according to the stat. But that wasn’t the case in pass protection—Nebraska ranked 104th and 115th in standard-downs sack rate and passing-downs sack rate, respectively.
If the Husker o-line is to improve under a first-year coach like Raiola, all of the linemen need to make a jump from last year. Turner Corcoran, however, may be the most important.
A four-star prospect out of Lawrence (Kan.) Free State High School, Corcoran was the highest-rated recruit in Nebraska’s 2020 class. He picked the Huskers over Ohio State, Oklahoma and Kansas. According to the 247Sports Composite, he was the No. 47 recruit in the nation and the No. 4 offensive tackle.
Corcoran was thrown into the fire almost immediately, which isn’t always a recipe for success for young o-linemen in the Power Five conferences. He became the first true freshman to start at tackle in Husker history in the season finale at Rutgers in 2020. His 2021 campaign never got off to the start he wanted, though, as he suffered an injury during fall camp that may have lingered and impacted his play as he went up against a brutal stretch of Big Ten edge rushers.
As Nebraska moves forward with its offseason, the situation at o-line will be one of the most intriguing to watch play out. Corcoran, as well as Teddy Prochazka, will miss spring practices as they work to be healthy for the upcoming season, according to Frost. The 6-foot-9, 305-pound Prochazka showed promised as a true freshman when he started at left tackle against Northwestern and Michigan, but went down with a season-ending knee injury against the Wolverines. The injury caused the once-benched Bryce Benhart to be reinserted at right tackle and Corcoran to be moved back to the left side.
There will be a new center for the first time in three seasons—that’s a big deal because the position can be considered as valuable as the quarterback. At 6-6 and 300 pounds, Corcoran is athletic enough to play other positions along the o-line, including center. Other contenders could be Nouredin Nouili, who started the final seven games at left guard and was put on scholarship before the Ohio State game, as well as Ethan Piper and Trent Hixson, who both have starting experience at guard.
As Frost said of the center competition, there’s a bunch of guys in the conversation.
“Turner’s a guy I think is probably capable of playing all five positions if we needed him to. He did a great job at left tackle, looked great at right tackle when we moved him over when Teddy played,” Frost said. “Teddy and Turner are both going to miss spring with injuries. They’re around and learning and able to do some things, but again, that’s going to help some other guys get reps and, Turner in particular, probably going to have to figure out where he fits the best.”