Nebraska's Offensive Line has a Lot of Questions and Few Solutions
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska’s Offensive Line has a Lot of Questions and Few Solutions

October 25, 2019

Nebraska has an offensive line problem. Rushing, from a per-carry standpoint, is down a full yard year-over-year. Sack rate is up. Passing down protection is a mess. And seldom have we seen five men executing properly at once. The easy solution is to just put new guys in. But new guys don’t automatically equal better production. And swapping, say, a junior tackle/guard for a true freshman tackle would almost be unheard of. Ten true freshman started on the offensive line in Week 1 across all of college football. Only one time this season has a Big Ten team started a first-year player on the line. 

This is not a problem with a quick fix. 

“You guys keep asking me [about young o-linemen],” head coach Scott Frost said earlier this week. “We're going to play guys when they're ready.”

The question then naturally becomes, “What constitutes ready?” Are we talking physically ready to compete? Because for an 18-year-old, that time will never come. Offensive line isn’t the same as wideout. Wan’Dale Robinson can come in and find success because his athleticism separates him. But true freshman Bryce Benhart has been on campus—and more importantly, been in Nebraska’s strength, conditioning and nutrition programs—for five months.

“They can only be so physically ready right now,” offensive line coach Greg Austin said. “When you talk about a young guy coming in that’s been on a high school eating plan, a high school weight room plan, they’re not going to be as developed as some of the guys that they’re playing. 

“Your typical guy is going to be in a program for two or three years, a weight room for two or three years, an eating plan for two or three years. Our young guys, or dang near any lineman coming into a program of this magnitude, he’s not going to be physically ready.”

Maturity is what gives young guys a chance to play. Being comfortable in the playbook gives guys a chance to play.

“Their maturity is what leads to them being able to connect the dots,” Austin said. 

Both Benhart, a 6-foot-9, 295-pound tackle, and Ethan Piper, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound converted interior lineman, are, according to Austin, mentally ready to play and help Nebraska win football games. 

Austin says the hope is they play against Indiana when the Huskers host a 5-2 Hoosier team Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT. Under what circumstances, though, he wouldn’t say. Garbage time in a blowout or spot snaps in a still-competitive game? The former has proven easier said than done this season; Benhart played in a 44-8 blowout win over Northern Illinois back in mid-September, but that has been the only comfortable win for Nebraska in seven games. 

Nothing, really, has gone according to plan. 

But Austin liked the way Benhart looked in that game against the Huskies. After a few opening moments of most likely feeling that special kind of warmth, Benhart settled in. 

“I think they’re [being Benhart and Piper] ready, but you don’t know until you’re out there and the guy either pisses down his leg or he’s actually a real dude,” Austin said. “When I was a true freshman, I pissed down my leg the first game. I was like, ‘Oh God, what am I doing, there’s all these people out here.’”

The line is the easiest group to point to and say, “Look, they’re trying to build a puzzle with missing pieces.” Nebraska just doesn’t have a lot of other options. 

After an initial class saw Nebraska take just two linemen—confident in who they had?—one of whom didn’t make it to school, the Huskers took six in the 2019 class. Reinforcements right now are either true freshmen, walk-ons or upperclassmen with next to no experience. A trio of Broc Bando, John Raridon and Matt Sichterman (three good gets on the trail) features a combined 10 years of time spent in Lincoln and 12 games played on the offensive line.

The Huskers could try and embrace one of the first college football tank jobs of the modern era in the last five games of the year, prioritizing development, but this is a team that still needs to win two more football games at a minimum. Missing a bowl game three years in a row isn’t/shouldn’t be acceptable at Nebraska. A rotation? Maybe. But a full-on youth movement is hard to sell.

“One thing you learn about this league pretty quick is this is a grown-man's league, and guys have to be ready,” Frost said. “It's probably hard to win in this league, particularly in the trenches, with 18- and 19-year-olds. We're expecting help out of those guys—I think they're really close to helping us—but they're also first-year guys, and when you throw them in, you can expect some first-game mistakes and first-year mistakes. We've got to be smart as a football team when we use them.”

So what is Nebraska to do in order to fix its middling unit?

Frost dialed up inside zone over and over again throughout the bye week hoping to find any kind of consistency. Assistants, players and Frost alike all week have recited the “back to the basics” line when questioned on what they were hoping to get done. On the offensive line, that meant technique.

“There are certain blocks where we were a block away, an angle away from springing a play in our last game,” Austin said. “Just the finite details of where we put our hat, hands, all those things that matter. We need to make sure we got that down and coach through those. And then also coming off the rock. We changed up a little bit of our technique in terms of our base blocks.”

The group did well with that. That’s been the message. But practice hasn’t translated to Saturday yet this year, thus the 4-3 record that feels a lot worse than it looks, so all eyes Saturday figure to be fixed on the line of scrimmage. 

The Huskers are tied for 72nd in yards per rush this season after ending 2018 16th in the same category. The group ranks 101st in stuff rate, which tracks exactly what you’d think. And the Huskers are 112th in line yards per carry at 2.25. (From FootballOutsiders.com, the line gets credit for rushing yardage between 0-3 yards, 50% credit for yards 4-8 and 125% credit for lost yardage. Anything over 8 yards is quantified as a highlight opportunity, and credit goes to the runner.) 

The offense has 27 points in its last 12 quarters. While that’s not completely on the offensive line, it’s hard to look past what’s going on up front. The Minnesota performance, collectively, was probably the hardest game of the season to watch.

But Austin is like Frost; he’s not panicked.

“Our A blocks, we had a plan on the backer filling frontside, the guy ended up filling backside and it took a couple drives to get the understanding of, ‘Hey that guy is actually fitting it a different way, so let’s make that transition,’” Austin said of the Minnesota game. “If we had just got that block accomplished, we [hit] big yards.”

Frost quoted Lou Holtz this past Monday in saying if a dog doesn’t bite as a pup, it probably won’t as an adult. Nebraska needs nasty, but in some respects that’s hard to extract when you don’t know where to pull from. 

Frost says he feels good about the corrective steps taken these past two weeks. Austin put his group in similar situations to what they faced against Minnesota, expecting linebackers to fit one way and being presented with a different look, and he liked the response. 

That all needs to carry over. Whoever ends up playing quarterback between Adrian Martinez and Noah Vedral won’t be 100% healthy. Maurice Washington—the best at effortlessly making defenders miss—is no longer in the backfield. Receivers are dropping with alarming frequency because of workload and physical toll. Nebraska needs a strong showing from the big guys up front maybe more than anything else to unclog the offense. 

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