Hot Reads: Run-Game Role Allows Austin to Put Philosophy on Display
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska’s Greg Austin Has a New Job, Too; Don’t Forget About Him

January 20, 2020

At the Rimington Trophy ceremony Saturday night, Nebraska had royalty in attendance. The school’s three Heisman Trophy winners—a running back, a wingback, and a quarterback—were all in the same room at the same time with some stage time to kill. So the three answered a few questions, about what winning the award meant to them, about what it’s like being in a class of college football’s elite, and about their favorite plays as Huskers.

Eric Crouch, the 2001 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, talked about that night he found out he was joining the club of all clubs. He didn’t think he, a running quarterback, stood a chance against the other finalists.

Florida quarterback Rex Grossman had thrown for 3,896 yards at a 65.6% clip and owned 34 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions. Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey had thrown for 2,652 yards and 23 touchdowns. Oregon quarterback Joey Harrington was responsible for 34 touchdowns to go along with his 2,764 passing yards.

Crouch wasn’t fully prepared to give an acceptance speech because he didn’t expect to need one. But when the time came and the applause started all around him, he told himself not to forget to thank his offensive linemen.

Of course he did, what with how the mind can sprint in unknowable directions in a situation like that, so he took time Saturday night to thank his linemen.

He had told a story earlier in the evening about his center, Dominic Raiola, the winner of the inaugural Rimington Trophy 20 years ago, and a game in South Bend, Indiana, when the atmosphere was electric and Crouch’s mouth grew too dry to even speak.

He said his tongue was stuck inside his mouth.

Unable to call the play, he looked at his tackle, and asked if he would spit into Crouch’s own mouth. As you’re reading this, you’re most certainly cringing. That’s the natural reaction. Crouch’s tackle said no, but before the quarterback could even move on to the next man in line, Raiola volunteered.

The relationship between quarterback and offensive lineman is something special.

Really, if you think about it, there isn’t one quite like it throughout sports. Maybe a pitcher and a catcher rival what a passer has with his blockers, but even then… (Braces for angry baseball fans.)

“Our job is to protect him so any time, for whatever reason, if he’s scrambling 15 yards and gets hit down the field and gets hit out of bounds, we get a little on edge,” right tackle Matt Farniok said early in the 2019 season. “We don’t want anyone ever to touch the quarterback or anyone to have the chance to hit the quarterback. He’s the guy that we are always here to protect regardless of what happens, he’s our guy and we have to sell out to protect him.”

It’s so easy with this sport to look at the quarterback position and say a team cannot win without great play from that one person. But what’s so easy to overlook, and what Adrian Martinez’s position coach tells him often and what Crouch tells himself never to forget, is the quarterback is a cog in the wheel of success. A quarterback cannot be successful if his offensive line doesn’t put him in a position to do so.

  2018 2019
Line YPC 2.78 (22nd) 2.43 (89th)
Opportunity Rate 53.8% (11th) 48.2% (55th)
Power Success Rate 68.8% (79th) 78.1% (25th)
Stuff Rate 18.5% (58th) 20.2% (79th)
Sack Rate 6.3% (62nd) 7.7% (96th)
Passing Downs Sack Rate 8.7% (80th) 12.6% (110th)
  • Line Yards per Carry: A metric that breaks down rushing yardage credit between the running back and the offensive line.
  • Opportunity Rate: Another FootballOutsiders number, this is the percentage of carries (when 4 yards are available) that gain at least 4 yards.
  • Power Success Rate: The percentage of runs on third or fourth down, 2 yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown.
  • Stuff Rate: The percentage of plays stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.
  • Sack Rate: The percentage of dropbacks that result in a sack, with garbage time stats filtered out.

Nebraska’s quarterback has and will continue to grab the headlines with his play, but there wasn’t enough putting him in successful positions last year from the offensive line. The 2020 season will more likely than not represent a watershed moment for that group.

It’s why perhaps the most interesting news of the past week, in a place where there has been plenty of news to go around, is offensive line coach Greg Austin getting what amounted to a promotion.

On Thursday, when Mike Dawson’s return was officially announced, Nebraska announced raises for running backs coach Ryan Held and defensive backs coach Travis Fisher as well. The Fisher news was a sure-thing; with the way the man is recruiting for Nebraska, he won’t be here for long if the Huskers don’t continue to pony up for his services. Same goes for Held, who also saw his résumé add the title of “Recruiting Coordinator” to it.

On Friday, Nebraska announced that former Oregon and Washington assistant coach Matt Lubick was rejoining his old co-worker, Scott Frost, as the Huskers’ new offensive coordinator and wide receiver coach.

Plenty has already been written about Lubick, and more will be coming in the days ahead, but Austin’s new duties slid seemingly under the radar.

The offensive line coach is now also a co-coordinator in charge of the run game.

Austin is crucial to what Frost is building, and the value Frost places in him is now clear. Austin is taking on more responsibility within the offense.

Nebraska’s running game needs some stability, and while it’s unclear just how much input/control/decision-making ability Austin will have when it comes to run game matters (Frost still calls the plays after all), he’ll have more than before.

Will Austin, with his finger on the pulse of the Nebraska offensive line better than any other single person in the state, be able to help tailor a run game to fit the exact needs and specifications of the guys he has? That will almost assuredly help Lubick, Frost, Martinez and the passing game.

On passing downs, Nebraska was bad. On third downs, Nebraska was too often in volatile situations. A better run game on first—a Frost staple—and second will help. Nebraska was good running on first (11.79 yards per carry on first down runs against Wisconsin) and it was also at times awful (2.50 against Iowa, and 1.77 against Northwestern) last season. Consistency, like everywhere else with this team, would go a long way.

Which is what makes this offseason and upcoming campaign so interesting. Nebraska had a veteran offensive line in 2018; Tanner Farmer and Jerald Foster anchoring the interior while Brenden Jaimes and Matt Farniok seasoned on the edges. The recipe became inverted in 2019, with Jaimes and Farniok serving as the leaders for an interior that featured redshirt freshman Cameron Jurgens learning center on the fly and former walk-on guard Trent Hixson starting for the first time.

Austin can roll with any combination of lines this season. Bryce Benhart in at tackle? It appears his destiny at some point, has that time come? Farniok inside? What happens with Boe Wilson? Is Turner Corcoran, one of the highest-rated recruits the Huskers have ever signed, more ready to come in and play right away than Benhart was? Is Jurgens’ snapping figured out? Does Hixson still have his guard spot or has that been taken by Broc Bando or maybe one of the freshmen who redshirted in 2019 like Ethan Piper?

The line will have the benefit of all that experience gained and returned from last season while also remaining relatively young in key spots.

Will Austin have the capital to protect against any weaknesses that pop up because of that? How much work will he do in tandem with Lubick when it comes to the rest of the offense?

A bounce-back year for Martinez will have just as much to do with the offensive line as it does Martinez's growth.

He’s got decent Heisman odds once again. If he does happen to win some hardware this time around, Crouch should get in his ear and give him some advice: remember to thank your offensive linemen.

Frost, in this hypothetical, will thank Austin. Nebraska still has an awful lot of work to do before such conversations become realistic, obviously, but Frost changing things up with his coaching staff this offseason wasn’t just about shake-ups for the sake of it; the head man has eyes for December love rather than summer attention. Nebraska wants to get back to a place where the guest of honor at the Rimington Trophy dinner in Lincoln is a Husker.

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