It’s certainly been an offseason of movement at Nebraska. That makes sense, because the clock is ticking to get things right in Lincoln.
The Huskers are coming off a 3-9 campaign, its fifth consecutive losing season. Head coach Scott Frost, under a restructured contract that will pay him $4 million in 2022 instead of $5 million with a buyout that drops from $15 million to $7.5 million after the Indiana game on Oct. 1, rebuilt his coaching staff and hit the transfer portal hard looking for new faces that might be able to help.
Two of the assistant hires appear to be excellent additions in receivers coach Mickey Joseph and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple.
Joseph, hired away from LSU, was instrumental in convincing Trey Palmer, Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda and Decoldest Crawford to sign with Nebraska. Palmer, a former four-star prospect in the 2019 class according to the 247Sports Composite, caught 30 passes for 344 yards and three touchdowns in 2021 for LSU and provides the Huskers with a veteran punt and kickoff returner. The speedy Garcia-Castaneda had plenty of offers when he decided to transfer from New Mexico State, including PJ Fleck and Minnesota, where he had 37 catches for 578 yards and four touchdowns last season. Crawford, a three-star receiver in the 2022 class, is following Joseph to Lincoln after being committed to him when he was coaching wideouts at LSU.
Joseph is an ace recruiter, and he’s already been making the rounds in the Huskers’ back yard, Omaha. That’s an area that produced three blue-chip recruits in the 2022 class—Burke linebacker Devon Jackson, Central offensive lineman Deshawn Woods and Bellevue West tight end Kaden Helms—and none of them signed with Nebraska or even entertained the idea. Bellevue West’s other talented tight end, Micah Riley-Ducker, a three-star prospect, signed with Auburn.
Whipple, fresh off a season where he called plays for a Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback, Kenny Pickett, and an offense at Pittsburgh that finished third in the country in scoring, has proven that he can help attract quarterbacks. The idea of an offense with the down-field passing game of Whipple married with the running game of Frost seemed to intrigue both Texas transfer Casey Thompson and Florida State transfer Chubba Purdy. Those were two big additions to a Husker quarterback room that is full of potential with Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg, but low on starting experience. In a make-or-break 2022 season for Frost, having an experienced quarterback as an option is wise.
Nebraska beat Oklahoma on the recruiting trail for both Thompson and Purdy. Even though the Sooners, who travel to Nebraska on Sept. 17, are trying to recover from Lincoln Riley’s Irish goodbye to Southern California after a loss to Oklahoma State, the Thompson-Purdy haul is still a big deal, especially for a program that hasn’t been to a bowl game since Mike Riley’s 2016 team. It shows that, despite not seeing very much success in recent years, if a head coach makes the right hires, it’s possible for a program to flip its roster and swiftly inject much-needed talent at multiple key positions.
While the offensive side of the ball is seeing intriguing talent enter the fray—Anthony Grant is another; he’s was one of the top junior-college running backs this past season for the national champs at New Mexico Military Institute—the offensive line’s development will be a key to helping unlocking it.
Frost tabbed former Chicago Bears assistant o-line coach, Donovan Raiola, to be the Huskers’ new o-line coach after the dismissal of Greg Austin. This is Raiola’s first Power Five o-line coaching gig, which makes it hard to gauge how much progress the unit will make in 2022.
Raiola inherits a room that loses two starters in center Cam Jurgens and right guard Matt Sichterman. Though no starting job is safe and competition will—and should—take place across all five positions after a poor campaign in 2021, the Huskers do return 2021 starters Turner Corcoran, Bryce Benhart, Nouredin Nouili and Teddy Prochazka, who cracked the starting lineup at left tackle as a true freshman but suffered a season-ending knee injury against Michigan. There were also two transfer additions in Hunter Anthony from Oklahoma State and Kevin Williams Jr. from FCS Northern Colorado.
What’s the secret to good o-lines? As is the case with every position, recruiting and development are good places to start. But it seems the Huskers have lacked in the development department recently. There have been specific success stories. Nick Gates, who was a tackle at Nebraska, has gone on to be a starting center and captain for the New York Giants before suffering a season-ending injury in 2021. Brenden Jaimes is on the Los Angeles Chargers’ active roster. So is Matt Farniok with the Dallas Cowboys. All three were longtime starters for the Huskers, but never earned first-team all-conference accolades in the Big Ten.
When looking back the past five seasons at the first- and second-team all-conference offensive linemen across each Power Five conference, it’s clear what makes good linemen: experience and three to four years of development in a program.
When using a scoring scale that gives 4 points for each first- and second-team all-conference member who was a senior, 3 for every junior, 2 for every sophomore and 1 for every freshman, one can add them up and divide by the total number of how many first- and second-team members there were to get an average score.
For example, the Big Ten’s 2021 first- and second-team all-conference o-linemen included:
Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa, JR (3 points)
Thayer Munford, Ohio State, SR (4)
Josh Seltzner, Wisconsin, SR (4)
Daniel Faalele, Minnesota, SR (4)
Nicholas Petit-Frere, Ohio State, JR (3)
Doug Kramer, Illinois, SR (4)
John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota, SR (4)
Kyler Schott, Iowa, SR (4)
Paris Johnson, Ohio State, Soph (2)
Ryan Hayes, Michigan, SR (4)
Peter Skoronski, Northwestern, Soph (2)
Logan Bruss, Wisconsin, SR (4)
The scoring total here is 42 years of combined experience. Divided by the number of selections, in this case 12, the average comes out to 3.5. Using this formula, one can get a general look at how old the average first- and second-team all-conference members are. In the Big Ten’s case in 2021, the best o-linemen were vets.
That’s actually true when looking back in time, too. In the past five seasons across each Power Five league, the first- and second-team all-conference o-lines had an average score of 3.36.
Average Experience of All-Conference Offensive Linemen
|POWER 5 AVG.||3.4||3.38||3.4||3.3||3.3|
The lowest average score, so youngest in this exercise, was the Pac-12’s all-conference lines in 2019—a 3.0. That year, the Pac-12 had four seniors, four juniors, two sophomores and one freshmen on the two all-conference o-line teams. The highest average score was the 2020 SEC and 2018 ACC all-conference o-lines, which both were at 3.7. Those were veteran groups with a combined 16 seniors, four juniors and one sophomore.
While it seems that experience plays a big part in being a solid o-lineman, that isn’t the case when looking at the all-conference skill positions: quarterback, running back, receiver and tight end. In the past five seasons across each Power Five league, the average score for the first- and second-team all-conference skill players is 2.94. That’s where one starts to see the freshmen and sophomores pop up more often.
Average Experience of All-Conference Skill Positions
|POWER 5 AVG.||2.98||2.95||2.91||2.86||3.0|
Since 2017, the lowest—or youngest—average score for skill positions was in 2018 when it was 2.86. Digging deeper, the ACC fielded the lowest/youngest average score of all first- and second-team all-conference skill players in 2019 and 2018, which both had a 2.6. In those two seasons, a combined seven seniors, 10 juniors, 12 sophomores and three freshmen were selected to the all-conference teams.
What’s this mean for Nebraska? The Huskers currently don’t have the experience and veteran presence that one generally sees in the first- and second-team all-conference o-linemen across the Power Five leagues. The five Husker linemen who got the bulk of the reps in 2021—Jurgens, Nouili, Corcoran, Benhart and Sichterman—had an average score of 2.6, which is below and younger than the average of the linemen who generally make all-conference teams.
Frost and his staff have chosen to go with young, inexperienced players at key positions like tackle, with Corcoran and Benhart, both of whom are former four-star recruits according to the 247sports Composite.
Corcoran has only played in 15 games and has 12 starts under his belt. Benhart has played in 23 games with 18 starts. Nouredin Nouili, a Colorado State transfer who was given a scholarship midway through the 2021 season, has played in a combined 20 games with 14 starts with the Rams and Huskers. Ethan Piper has played in 14 games with 10 starts in three seasons. Trent Hixson has seen his playing time go down throughout his career, but he has a combined 24 games with 14 starts. Prochazka flashed solid play before his injury.
Because of playing young players in a position where it’s the older players who generally excel, there have been growing pains. That doesn’t mean players like Corcoran and Benhart will never turn into all-conference-caliber linemen.
Could the additions from the portal—Williams and Anthony—help? It doesn’t hurt to bring them in to compete. Williams, an Omaha native, played in 22 games with 19 starts at both a tackle and guard at the FCS level. Anthony played in 22 games with five starts. He was Oklahoma State’s starting right tackle in 2020 before suffering a broken foot in the opener.
Raiola and his o-linemen have their work cut out for them. The first order of business should be continuing to scour the transfer portal for more help. Once spring practice starts, finding Jurgens’ replacement at center, a crucial position that acts as the o-line’s quarterback, becomes paramount.
The Huskers have done well bringing in skill talent from the transfer portal. As for the o-line, the older the better. Years of development and game reps is a good way to turn a bad o-line into a solid one.