Basics and fundamentals.
To new Nebraska offensive line coach Donovan Raiola, those are the keys to having a successful offensive line, and he’s ready to get to work instilling them with his unit in Lincoln.
Raiola met with the media for the first time on Wednesday at Memorial Stadium along with the two other new assistants, including offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple and receivers coach, associate head coach and passing game coordinator Mickey Joseph.
Raiola comes to Nebraska after spending nearly four seasons as an assistant o-line coach with the Chicago Bears of the NFL, where he learned and worked under longtime o-line coaches Harry Heistand and Juan Castillo. The brother of former Husker All-American center and Rimington Trophy winner, Dominic Raiola, Donovan played his college ball at Wisconsin where he started 39 games at center and was a three-time honorable-mention All-Big Ten pick from 2003-05.
“This is a special place to me, and it obviously has a great offensive line tradition. And those are two things that stuck out to me,” Raiola said of what drew him to the job.
Raiola has already met with his o-linemen and watched a bit of film on them. He inherits a unit that saw two starters move on from the program in center Cam Jurgens, who recently declared for the NFL draft, and right guard Matt Sichterman.
The unit struggled for the most part in 2021, especially in pass protection. The Huskers allowed 29 sacks, which tied for 10th in the Big Ten and 80th in the nation. Their sack rate, a statistic that quantifies how often a defense sacks the quarterback based on the number of dropbacks the offense had for all non-garbage time pass attempts, was at 8.1%, raking 102nd in the nation.
According to a couple run stats—stuff rate and opportunity rate—the Huskers were average. Nebraska’s stuff rate, which tracks the percentage of carries by running backs who are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage, was 17.2% and 56th in the country. For opportunity rate, the percentage of carries (when 4 yards are available) that gain at least 4 yards, it was 48.5% and 61st in the country.
That was before the loss of both Jurgens and Sichterman, however. Raiola has seen two additions to the o-line room already in Kevin Williams Jr., an Omaha native and transfer from FCS-member Northern Colorado, and Justin Evans-Jenkins, a high school recruit who picked the Huskers Wednesday on the first day of the early-signing period.
More additions and attrition are likely to come for the team, which is the norm in college football. But for Raiola’s group, he wants his room to be close, like a family.
“Staying together, being together all the time,” Raiola said. “Just getting as close as possible because, you know, the offensive line obviously, you have to play through one set of eyes and play together as five guys seeing the game as one, so that’s the most important thing right now.”
Being good at the basics is what Raiola wants from his players. What are some of the basics according to the Hawaii native?
“Whether that’s lining up correctly with your splits, are you supposed to be on the ball or off the ball? And then, a lot of the time, if you take care of the basics, then everything happens in a good way,” Raiola said.
Raiola has a plan for developing the o-linemen at Nebraska. It’ll be a process, one that starts from the ground up.
“We’re going to build them up from the ground up. I think that’s the most important thing. Everything matters,” Raiola said. “Right now, developing their strength, helping them to understand how important nutrition is for the whole athlete, and getting the fundamentals down.”
It was a memorable moment when Raiola first met his new boss, head coach Scott Frost. Raiola’s Bears were on a bye week earlier this season, so he had a chance to travel down to Texas to see his nephew Dylan’s first-round playoff high school football game. Dylan Raiola is a four-star 2024 quarterback prospect according to 247Sports from Burleson, Texas, who already owns offers from Nebraska, Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State, among many others.
Raiola said Frost came off as genuine and authentic.
“It was just small talk, just trying to get to know each other,” Raiola said. “I didn’t know he was going to be there until he showed up, so that was awesome.”