The pressing question for Nebraska’s offensive line this offseason is not who is going to play where — there are many options with a lot of on-paper talent — but this one: Can this unit be the strength of the Huskers’ offense?
It has the experience to be that. It has the depth to do it, too. Now, will it actually transpire?
That answer is probably the key to unlocking the other questions the Huskers face on offense. Time to throw will be crucial for Nebraska’s entirely new quarterback and mostly new receiving corps. Good backs can look great behind a strong line. This is obvious stuff, but given all the change elsewhere Nebraska’s 2017 ceiling may be set by the big guys up front.
We saw last year that close actually counts in horseshoes, hand grenades and football’s offseason. The 2016 Huskers became somewhat trendy because the 2015 Huskers lost a bunch of close games. That’s not the case here in 2017. Nebraska was a nine-win team a year ago that didn’t have the profile to match. Prognosticators will take notice during preview season this year. The Huskers won’t be tabbed as a “surprise team” this offseason and if they are it’s fair to ask “based on what?”
If the answer to that question is a combination of “a dominant offensive line” and an “improved defense,” maybe it’s acceptable. That’s a plausible way forward.
Today we focus on the guys who will be responsible for much of the Huskers’ forward movement in 2017.
Lock Down the Left Side
Nebraska returns four starters on the line and it’s likely safe to lock in juniors Nick Gates and Jerald Foster at left tackle and left guard respectively. Both have NFL potential and the prospect of having both playing alongside one another for an entire season might represent the Huskers’ biggest strength in 2017.
What happens behind those two could get interesting. Redshirt freshman Matt Farniok is probably Nebraska’s left tackle of the future, but his fate in 2017 could be decided elsewhere (more on that later). Sophomore Christian Gaylord likely starts spring ball as Gates’ top backup.
Fellow sophomore Jalin Barnett could be in the mix at either guard spot. Either way, it’s time for that class to make a push. It’s fair to wonder why, in a year when Nebraska suffered significant injuries on the line, Coach Mike Cavanaugh consistently looked elsewhere and given some of the young players nipping at their heels there is some pressure here for guys like Gaylord and Barnett to stake a claim to some spot in the two-deep.
Man in the Middle
Nebraska’s one open position is at center, where sophomore Michael Decker and redshirt freshman John Raridon will likely battle it out. Dylan Utter didn’t need a whole lot of relief in 2016, despite playing through some injuries, so that battle is fairly even in terms of game experience.
That being the case, if I had to make a call today without seeing any practice I would probably put my money on Raridon. Nebraska’s staff viewed him as a center even before he got on campus and the talent is there, it’s mostly question of whether he’s ready to “quarterback” the offensive line.
I’m guessing he will be and that might be just the first piece of a potential youth movement on the line.
Right Side Round Up
Nebraska also returns two starters on the right side of the line, though things are little more complicated there. It would take a lot to unseat Tanner Farmer at right guard, but redshirt freshman Boe Wilson could make things interesting. He was sort of the forgotten man on the offensive line in that 2016 recruiting class behind more highly touted players in Farniok and Raridon, but it was Wilson who impressed enough in fall camp last August to really force the redshirt issue. He’ll probably be the top backup right from the start and could provide a decent push for Farmer.
Senior David Knevel returns at right tackle, but junior Cole Conrad, who was put on scholarship for the spring semester, played well enough in relief of an injured Knevel that this seems like a totally open position with at least two viable candidates.
I say “at least” because Farniok could get a look here as well. It’s a matter of what Nebraska wants to do with him. Are they content to let him spell Gates at left tackle and get his snaps that way, or is Cavanaugh looking for his most talented five? If its the latter, Farniok could be a part of the right tackle competition. In fact, there’s not an all that unlikely scenario in 2017 where Nebraska plays three redshirt freshmen at the same time.
While it’s unlikely that would be the starting line, it’s still a good sign for the Huskers offensive line overall. There’s experience here but there’s also seemingly enough talent to have a real second-string line that you wouldn’t be scared to give a series in a Big Ten game.
That hasn’t been Cavanaugh’s preferred way of doing things but it’s never seemed like as viable an option since he arrived at Nebraska as it does now.