Two transfer portals, winter workouts and an entire spring season have passed. There’s now a clearer picture for Nebraska’s scheme and personnel. Hail Varsity is taking a closer look at what we’ve learned about each position now that the spring season is over and the portal is closed.
Previous resets: Quarterbacks, Running backs, Wide receivers, Tight ends.
Nebraska’s offensive line focused on improvement this spring. Offensive line coach Donovan Raiola informed his linemen when he was retained on Matt Rhule’s staff that they’d keep getting better. Rhule, a former offensive line assistant with the New York Giants, is a believer in the offensive line. Not only in the line’s improvement but with righting the record from last season. Rhule is an advocate for the offensive line and made building confidence within the a unit a priority this spring.
Some confidence may have come with reinforcements. Former Arizona State starter Ben Scott arrived in Lincoln via the portal and is likely the team’s starting center. Nouredin Nouili is back from suspension and excited for a final season. The Huskers also signed a line-heavy class in 2023, a few of which are on the offensive side. Lincoln Southeast standout Gunner Gottula enrolled early and garnered praise from coaches. Scottsbluff standout Brock Knutson, Creighton Prep’s Sam Sledge and Gretna’s Mason Goldman will add additional depth.
“I don’t think there’s getting any more depth, right?” Rhule said after the spring game. “I mean, we have the players we have and we have some guys coming in. We’re going to coach them, so we’re not we’re not thinking about anybody other than the guys on our team.”
Rhule believes returning tackle Bryce Benhart is a potential NFL lineman. He also complimented the play of Dylan Parrot, Joey Mancino, Keegan Menning and Justin Evans-Jenkins this spring. They all played within a rotating offensive line this spring, right up to the Red-White Game. Coaches limited returner Teddy Prochazka as he heals from injury but he continued practicing in a non-contact capacity. Together, they all gelled with an increased focus on details and competitiveness this spring. Scott mentioned the importance of the “challenge drill” which pitted skill against skill with full effort. That required the offensive line to attack at full speed in order to execute blocks. He feels those drills helped the linemen learn more about each other an build a bond.
“Like Coach Raiola was saying, we have about eight or nine guys that could possibly start in the line right now,” Scott said in the spring. “We’ve just got to find that starting five. And I’m pretty sure Coach Raiola likes to rotate in during games so that will be good for everyone to get a taste here and there.
“I think we’ve just got to build on the spring, we’re doing a pretty good job in the spring. And fall camp’s going to come around and we’re going to keep building, keep getting better and better.”
Offensive linemen led Nebraska out of the locker room for the Tunnel Walk in the Red-White Game. They led the Huskers onto the field in front of 66,000 fans last month before putting in a 2-hour shift. Offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield, who credited his time as an assistant offensive line coach in Carolina with helping him call plays with linemen in mind, showed the direction that line-minded play calling during the spring game.
Against a chaotic defense, the Huskers tried establishing a pocket in pass protection. They communicated against various blitz directions and picked up stunts well enough for the offense to move the ball. Sometimes the pressure got through and forced mobile quarterbacks to scramble, like when Jeff Sims dodged a blitz off the edge and rolled out of the pocket to find Marcus Washington open for a first down. At other times the pocket held enough for Sims to find Billy Kemp along the sidelines for a first down. Physical first steps by the offensive line also helped sell play action passes, like that first-quarter throw to Kemp. Linemen initiated their blocks and maintained contact on the line of scrimmage, which avoided penalties while drawing linebackers towards the line for run support. For all its stunts and constant attempts at pressure, Nebraska’s defense made just two sacks in the Red-White Game.
Satterfield’s targeted intent to run the ball came with support from the offensive line. Benhart, in the lead up to the spring game, called Satterfield an explosive play caller. Satterfield’s approach to run blocking could explain that. Janiran Bonner, playing the hybrid H-back role, went in motion to the strong side with tight end Thomas Fidone on a first-quarter drive. Nouili, the right guard at the time, pulled to pick up edge rusher Maverick Noonan. Turner Corcoran left Noonan and moved to the second level to block linebacker Kaine Williams. Bonner pulled opposite motion to pick up Garrett Snodgrass, who was crashing on the play. With the rest of the offensive line washing their blockers towards the motion side, Anthony Grant took a hand off away from motion and ran for 12 yards. Grant finished the play in a pile with offensive linemen continuing their push.
For as excited as returning lineman Ethan Piper was about the offensive line before, he’s more excited about the line’s future. After the spring game he felt they took more steps “in the right direction” following a spring of deliberate, high-intensity practices. Personally, he anticipated looking at spring game film hours afterwards so he could take those lessons immediately into the summer.
“Overall, just being out there, it’s got a different feel, a different speed today” Piper said after the Red-White Game. “It was a good spring game.”