Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

Re-Scoring the 2022 Huskers: Offensive Line

April 22, 2022

Spring ball is completed, so the Nebraska football program is transitioning to the next step of the offseason. After a short break, the players will return for summer conditioning before beginning fall practice around late July and early August.

With the 15 spring practices behind the team, let’s revisit the series we did in January that scored each position group on the team 1 through 10. A score of 1 was low and meant the group wasn’t looking too good while a 10 meant it’s looking great, and fans should be excited.

Already re-scored: Receivers

We’re talking about the offensive line now, a unit that needs to find replacements for center Cam Jurgens and right guard Matt Sichterman. Here’s the original post on the o-line, which had a score of 4.

What has changed along the o-line since spring ball started? Not much, but there have been developments that can help us piece together what the unit might look like when it trots on the field for the first snap against Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 27.

First, let’s talk about Turner Corcoran and Teddy Prochazka, a couple projected starters. Both were limited to mental reps in the spring as they’re rehabbing injuries.

When fully healthy, the 6-foot-9, 305-pound Prochazka, an Elkhorn South product, was impressive at left tackle in limited action. He only started two games before his season-ending leg injury against Michigan. It’s a lot to ask of a second-year player who didn’t go through spring as a full participant to simply be re-inserted to the o-line and pick up where he left off. It might take time for Prochazka to return to the level he was at last season.

The same goes for Corcoran, who didn’t necessarily have a strong season last year as he flipped from left to right tackle to make room for Prochazka, then went back to the left side after the injury. It’s important to remember that Corcoran, a former top-50 national recruit in the 2020 class according to the 247Sports Composite, was in just his second season on campus last year. It’s awfully difficult for a young lineman to block the kind of elite veteran pass rushers that reside in the Big Ten.

While Prochazka is a prototypical big and long tackle, Corcoran likely has the athletic ability to play multiple positions along the o-line. It’s been rumored that he could see action at center or guard.

Of course every coach would want guys like Corcoran and Prochazka to be on the field getting both physical and mental reps. But that wasn’t possible this spring, so first-year o-line coach Donovan Raiola tried to make the best of it.

“We got them coaching guys up and helping and just being a part of the unit,” Donovan said of Corcoran and Prochazka in March. “I’m always pushing the narrative of helping each other. Everything we do, we coach each other and help each other. So they’re right there, they’re right on our hips. The more the players can take control of this thing, the better off we’ll be.”

Raiola is tasked with finding who the best five linemen are in the program and getting them on the field together. One of them will play center, the position that Jurgens played so well at that he might hear his name called next week at the NFL Draft. It’s safe to say that the leader in the clubhouse for that role is former walk-on Trent Hixson, an Omaha Skutt graduate who earned a scholarship and started 12 games at left guard in 2019 before losing his job and being a reserve in both 2020 and last year, where he made spot starts against Oklahoma and Michigan State.

Raiola, who spent almost four seasons as an assistant o-line coach with the NFL’s Chicago Bears, is teaching his own style of blocking, which is different than how his predecessor, Greg Austin, did things.

Raiola isn’t interested in detailing specifics to those outside the program, but from what he’s said about it, there seems to be an emphasis on making things simpler.

“It takes a lot of thinking out of it. Sometimes when you think too much at that position, it puts you in a trance,” Donovan said.

Raiola’s boss, Scott Frost, seems to agree. The fifth-year head coach talked about the center position, as well as how he’s liked what he’s seen technique-wise along the o-line.

“Trent’s had a really good spring. (Ethan) Piper’s behind him and had a really good spring, too,” he said following the spring game. “A lot of what those guys are doing up front has helped them, I think it’s just kind of taken the handcuffs off them and let them go. But Trent’s one of the guys I’d highlight who has really taken a giant leap forward, and I feel good about that position with those two guys there.”

At the guard positions, Nouredin Nouili was inserted to the lineup midseason and held down the left guard spot fairly well. The Norris High School grad and former Colorado State transfer is a strong pick to start. The right side, however, might still be up for grabs.

Everything in the spring game should be taken with a grain of salt, but Broc Bando started at right guard during the scrimmage. Bando is entering his sixth season in the program and has yet to start a game. Northern Colorado transfer Kevin Williams Jr., an Omaha native, was brought in to compete for a starting job, and he might have something to say about who starts at guard. Williams started games at both guard and tackle at the FCS level. Could Henry Lutovsky, a former three-star recruit in the 2021 class, make a push, too? The Iowa native looks the part at 6-6 and 330 pounds, but he lacks experience as it’s just his second year in Lincoln.

Who plays right tackle might depend on where Prochazka and Corcoran line up if healthy, but Bryce Benhart has started 18 games at the position. Though last year wasn’t always pretty for the 6-9, 330-pounder—the unit as a whole struggled to block the pass rush, not just Benhart—maybe a fresh set of eyes and new way of doing things from Raiola will make an impact with the Minnesota native.

A couple tackles who will look to push those in front of them include the 6-7, 305-pound Brant Banks and 6-6, 320-pound Oklahoma State transfer Hunter Anthony, who was the Cowboys’ season-opening right tackle in 2020 before a foot injury derailed his season and ultimately his career in Stillwater.

The re-score

No one will know how successful offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s offense is going to be until the season starts. It can take time for the starters to get comfortable as they play more game reps, and it’s unrealistic for it to look like a finished product against Northwestern—or even North Dakota or Georgia Southern.

But there’s one thing that can help the offense progress quickly—solid o-line play and a healthy run game. That will help projected starting quarterback Casey Thompson and Whipple’s passing offense.

If Hixson is indeed the starting center in the fall, that’s one development to keep an eye on considering how important the position is to the o-line. While he doesn’t have much experience playing center in college, Hixson is a smart guy who’s entering his sixth year on campus—knowledge and playing experience, albeit at guard, is key. He has both.

While it’s not some sort of death blow to the o-line that Corcoran and Prochazka didn’t practice this spring, in a perfect world you still would have liked to see them getting the physical reps with the rest of their teammates. It’s unfair to them to assume that once healthy, they’ll be able to step on to a field and everything will click immediately. Like everything else in football, it will take time for them to get re-acclimated to the speed and physicality of the game.

Before the spring, Nebraska’s score for its o-line was a 4. After the spring, it’s still a 4, but just barely.

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