Scott Frost has said it time and again since coming back to Lincoln: he wants this Husker roster to get old and stay old.
The obvious draw of experience goes beyond just knowing your assignment or knowing your scheme. “It’s just a big physical league and it helps you to be a 21- or 22-year-old instead of an 1-8 or 19-year-old,” Frost said Monday of the Big Ten. Nebraska isn’t yet recruiting the kind of high school player that walks onto a campus ready-made for big snaps. It’s not a league for—and we’ll borrow a phrase from quarterback coach Mario Verduzco here—“candy asses.”
In the Big Ten, trench play is a war. Size and depth is a prerequisite for competitiveness. Frost has learned this.
Nebraska’s opponent for this week, Wisconsin, at least in the West division, is a litmus test in that regard.
“Those kids get in the program and they know they need to be tough and physical and they learn the system on both sides,” Frost said of the Badgers. “They wait their turn and when they get their shot, they’re ready to go.
“That’s where we’re trying to get as a program. You’re better when you don’t have to rely a lot on young kids. You’re relying on juniors and seniors that have been in the program and know the schemes and have been physically developed. They’re quite a way down that road and I give them a lot of credit for what they’ve built up there.”
Nebraska (0-1) is still building.
On Saturday against the now-third-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes (1-0), the Huskers used 30 freshmen or sophomores, according to the participation report after the game. Nine of those guys were on the offensive and defensive lines.
The positive: they played surprisingly well.
Let’s focus on the offensive side of the ball, where Nebraska averaged 6 yards a carry against a Buckeye team that ended the 2019 season sixth in the country in rushing defense by yards per carry. That crew gave up less than 3 yards a run. Coincidentally, after one game, Nebraska ranks sixth nationally in rushing offense by yards per carry.
“For the most part, I thought we played really well,” Frost said. “I thought we ran it pretty well against a good team. Little inconsistencies there, too. A couple pass protections where we just flat out whiffed, one where kids misread the signal and we left a tight end alone on one of their defensive ends in protection because kids saw the wrong play come from the sideline. But, overall, I was pleased and I think it’s something we can build on.
“I thought (Brenden) Jaimes at left tackle played really well and was probably the anchor as the veteran there. Guys across the board, I thought, did their job pretty well and it’s definitely something we can build on and keep getting better from.”
Jaimes said he was most proud of the way the group started off the game. Nebraska sprinted down the field on its opening possession, 75 yards in four plays for a touchdown. For stretches, it opened up solid holes at the point of attack.
The group came in with an attack mentality. “Come out hot and stay hot,” Jaimes said. That’s what gets preached in the o-line room.
Nebraska’s offensive line has a mix of old and new, so it might not even be representative of the line Frost will want to have, say, five years in. Jaimes and right guard Matt Farniok are seniors with loads of playing time under their belt. But Cam Jurgens is still just a sophomore at center. NU has a redshirt freshman in Bryce Benhart starting at right tackle and another in Ethan Piper who got the majority of the snaps at left guard.
Piper didn’t draw the start, though. Senior Boe Wilson did. And when Wilson is on the field, Nebraska has four of its five season-long starters from last year’s team. It might not be old, but it has guys who have played some ball.
“The inexperience excuse should no longer be a thing,” Jaimes said. “It shouldn’t be an excuse that we need to fall back on because all of us do have experience. We do have games under our belt. Not only that, but we also have young guys who don’t have any experience wanting to play and wanting to start and get on the field to get that experience so that they can’t use that as an excuse either. I think the growth and development that we’ve had in the offensive line room has been the best since I’ve been here.”
Look at Piper’s play. He got 30 snaps to Wilson’s 26. Trent Hixson, who started at the spot a year ago, only played as a third-string center.
“I saw a younger inexperienced guy who just wanted to play football,” Jaimes said of Piper. “I don’t think he cares where the coaches put him as long as he’s on the field. … Overall, I think he played really well.”
A young guy, though, so there was some good and some bad. Just like everyone else, really. How many completely clean, mistake-free games have the Huskers played in the last two years? They’ve had upset bids or comeback attempts killed by mistakes. The offensive line in particular was flagged for holding twice against the Buckeyes, both of the penalties called on seniors.
“Everyone just needs to focus on doing their job and doing it 100%,” Jaimes said. “I think if everyone has that mindset, our offense will work. I think it’s when people start to overthink and just don’t do their job 100% is when this offense doesn’t work. You just need 11 guys doing 11 jobs to the best of their ability and everything will work itself out.
“Going forward with Wisconsin obviously they’re a very well-coached team, very disciplined, just like Ohio State, and you can’t make the silly mistakes you made last week against them. Otherwise same outcome.”
Guys are gonna have to grow up quickly.