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On The Line

July 23, 2023

This story originally appeared in the Hail Varsity 2023 Husker Football Yearbook. Purchase your copy here.

The first full week of March kicked off the inaugural Husker Olympics, a week dedicated to teamwork and competition on the football team. Coach Matt Rhule and staff leaned on the support of other Nebraska athletic programs—and the Lincoln Stars hockey team—to host events aimed at building camaraderie among the players.

One was held on the basketball practice courts inside the Hendricks Training Facility. There, on the fourth day of the Husker Olympics as snow fell outside, Rhule saw Ethan Piper, the junior offensive lineman from Norfolk, Nebraska, do something unexpected.

“We had a dunk contest and I have Ethan Piper at 330 pounds dunking a basketball,” Rhule said when reflecting on that day. “I’m like, ‘OK, well, he’s pretty explosive, right?’”

Moments like these confirm what Rhule already knew about his offensive line: the unit is “as talented a one as I’ve ever been around in college football, in terms of as a head coach.”
But he’s heard the criticism. While he can tell you the o-line is talented, fans want to see that talent in action. Rhule does too, and it comes down to a set of expectations.

“. . . (A)re they going to believe it? Are they going to put it together?” Rhule said following a spring practice. “The narrative is, ‘The o-line’s terrible.’ They hear that a lot, so I think all those guys on the offensive line just have to play with great confidence.”

It would be convenient, in Rhule’s eyes, to pin all of the negatives on the offensive line. Rhule doesn’t like to deal in absolutes.

And that might explain his approach to Nebraska’s offensive line.

Offensive line coach Donovan Raiola was the only member of Nebraska’s previous coaching staff retained by Rhule. The decision was easy for Rhule after speaking with the players.

“I have never, ever, in my life asked all the guys at their position about their coach and not have one guy say they don’t love him,” Rhule said. “Even a young man that went into the portal that I have known since I recruited him at Baylor said, ‘I will stand on the table for that man.’

“So, that meant a lot to me coming from the players, even a guy that is leaving saying ‘I believe in him.’”

Nebraska Cornhusker offensive line coach Donovan Raiola works with the player during spring football practice Tuesday, April 4, 2023, Lincoln, Neb. Photo by John S. Peterson.

Raiola isn’t one for much talking. When he met with the media in February, he was asked about those conversations Rhule had with his players.

What did it mean for them to say what they did about him?

“Let’s keep improving,” Raiola said, directing the attention away from himself. “Improve our standards and just everything we do. Our process and everything we do, just focus on improvement.”

In 2022, the Husker o-line had the second-worst run-blocking and pass-blocking grades in the Big Ten, according to Pro Football Focus. The unit struggled to find consistent footing, shuffling between six o-line combinations throughout the season as they combatted both injuries and performance concerns.

While the Huskers lost Trent Hixson, Broc Bando, Kevin Williams and Brant Banks from the 2022 line, they return 64.2% of their snaps in 2023. They’ve also brought in a number of new players to help bolster the room.

Former Arizona State starter Ben Scott arrived in Lincoln in January. From his perspective, the talent is there. Raiola said during spring Nebraska had “eight or nine guys that could possibly start on the line right now.”

Scott agreed.

“We’ve just got to find that starting five,” he said. “And I’m pretty sure Coach Raiola likes to rotate in during games, so that will be good for everyone to get a taste here and there.
“I think we’ve just got to build on the spring . . . and fall camp’s going to come around and we’re going to keep building, keep getting better and better.”

On top of it, Nebraska also has a scholarship backup at every position on the o-line for the upcoming season. That alone is a step forward. The Huskers were so thin on the offensive line toward the end of the 2022 season Banks was listed as the backup at left tackle and left guard, while Piper—who was the starting left guard—also backed up the center spot.

From Rhule’s perspective, Raiola and the offensive line are examples for the team as a whole. They’re Nebraska’s hardest working group and they’ve set the highest standard for themselves. They operate under the belief of “one set of eyes.”

“I’ve never had another position group on another team that I’ve ever had that has what they have,” Rhule said. “They travel together, they hold each other highly accountable. They do almost sometimes too much extra. I guess my point is that they are the definition of what it means to be a Cornhusker. They’re going to fight, scratch and claw and give you everything they have, so they should be celebrated.

“Now, does that mean that we’re OK with it if we give up a sack? No. We want to play well, and they’re doing everything they can to play well, and that’s why I’m proud of them.

“That’s why I always speak on their behalf because there’s not a lot of glory for the o-line.”

Rhule has a deep appreciation for the offensive line. It’s personal, too.

After moving from the Bronx to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager, Rhule enrolled at State College Area High School. Most of what’s been written about Rhule during that time has him listed as a linebacker, the position he played as a walk-on at Penn State.

However, Rhule played center as a senior. It was there he became the “hub of every offensive play,” as the local newspaper wrote, as he snapped to quarterback Mike McQueary.

Rhule was also the assistant offensive line coach for the New York Giants in 2012.

When Rhule arrived at Nebraska, he found an o-line room full of potential. Bryce Benhart, in his opinion, is a future NFL lineman. He’s spoken highly of players like Nouredin Nouili—who returns after a suspension in 2022—and Teddy Prochazka, who has impressed him with his leadership.

Something Rhule also found was a group, especially those older in the program, that had spent its formative years in a unique situation after arriving in college.

“They weren’t allowed to go in the weight room because of COVID,” Rhule said. “Even for me in the NFL, as the players were coming in (after leaving college), I was like, ‘Oh, they don’t look as good.’ And, well, they had spent a year, maybe, doing pushups—in some places it was one-and-a-half to two years—so their formative development was there.”

Hail Varsity 2023 Yearbook CoverWith that in mind, Rhule, alongside head football strength and conditioning coach Corey Campbell and director of football nutrition Kristin Coggin, got to work building a system emphasizing athletic medicine, sports performance, nutrition, the weight room and recovery.

For Coggin, that included a hard look at players as individuals. What one might need isn’t going to mirror what another might need. Nutrition needs vary depending on the time of year, with fall looking significantly different than what players need in winter and spring.

Coggin also collaborates multiple times a day with Campbell and his staff to ensure they’re on the same page. It’s not about telling the players what they need to do to fuel and power their bodies. It’s about empowering them to learn how to care for themselves long term.
That attention goes one step further for Rhule, too.

“We also put a focus on mobility and strength and really for those guys, bending and functional strength,” Rhule said. “I saw a lot of guys have a lot of areas of improvement, but I saw a lot of guys get significantly more improvement as we went on.”

That meant ditching the knee braces that have become common in college football. While the head coach at Baylor, Rhule started asking some of the top consultants in the country for their opinions. He noticed the o-lineman in the NFL didn’t wear braces, so why was it so common in college?

“It’s the only position in college sports where players wear something that restricts their movement, but their counterparts at the professional level don’t,” he said. “Other than a metal bat in baseball in college, pretty much everything’s the same, right?

“God made the human body to bend and move. You restrict movement, you put pressure somewhere else, so when you put pressure on the knee, then you have a lot of high ankle sprains, you have a lot of hip injuries. You look at hockey players, they restrict their ankles, and they all end up having groin injuries.”

Equipped with the knowledge players can hurt their knees with or without a brace, Rhule decided the best thing he could do for his players was allow them to bend, move and be as flexible as possible. He has since told any college player he works with the decision is theirs to make. If you want to wear a brace, that’s great. If you don’t, that’s great, too. The only rule is, however a player practices is how they play.

When spring ball started for Nebraska, he made the same offer. Rhule saw a couple of players initially opt to wear the braces, but “eventually a lot of them took them off.”

Whether it’s the work in the weight room, how the players are fueling themselves or the equipment they choose to use, or choose not to, Rhule and Raiola have big expectations for the development of Nebraska’s offensive line.

“I’m really looking forward to them coming back from summer conditioning and seeing that next step that they take with Coach Campbell and his staff, and Miss Kristin and her staff,” Raiola said.

Rhule stood in front of a group of reporters in Nebraska’s weight room following the spring game April 22. In the 12 minutes he spoke, he provided brief thoughts and takeaways for each of the position groups. For the offensive line, he reiterated his appreciation for the group.

They fit Rhule and offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield’s offensive strategy—which includes a heavy emphasis on the rushing attack—but they still had plenty to work on before kickoff against Minnesota in August. The Huskers didn’t plan to seek any additions to the o-line, but instead planned to focus on the depth they already had.

Nebraska Huskers offensive lineman Ethan Piper (57) and teammates run some plays during their practice in Lincoln, Nebraska August 7, 2022. Photo by Eric Francis

They also had plenty to sort out as to who slots where. Center seemed to be Scott’s to lose, but everything around him was uncertain.

Would Corcoran get the start at right guard? Piper, whom Rhule learned is pretty explosive, had the spot through spring ball. Prochazka returned from a spring of rehabbing a shoulder injury and looked likely to man the left tackle spot, where Corcoran spent his time through spring.

Corcoran seemed to be one of the most versatile options on the offensive line. He started 19 games at left tackle, two at right tackle and three at left guard over three seasons. That flexibility provided flexibility as the Huskers adjusted the line to best fit experience and needs.

As spring ball concluded, Nebraska still had time. Not too much time — Aug. 31 was just over four months away — but enough for continued development and competition. There will be tough days and bad matchups, as Rhule said, but he has come to expect that in his coaching career.

“I know this: they are going to lay it all on the line,” Rhule said. “There’s not one doubt in my mind that they are going to lay it all on the line every game we play this year.

“And that is, as a coach, all I can ever ask for. That is the culture you really want.”

Rhule doesn’t deal in absolutes. His dad comes from a family of farmers in central Pennsylvania. You can’t predict the rain or the conditions from year to year. You can, however, show up and do the work and hope for the best harvest possible.

That might explain Rhule’s approach to the offensive line.

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