nebraska huskers assistant coach greg austin
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Scoring the 2021 Huskers: Offensive Line

January 21, 2021

For two years running now we’ve done this series in the months immediately following the end of the season. It’s back. We’re scoring Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now, before spring ball, relative to the various other groups. Each day will bring about a different room, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers on the scores: 2020 play, returning production, and incoming talent.

Already covered: Wideouts | Tight Ends | Running Backs

Next up. . .

Offensive Line

Returning: Turner Corcoran (2Y FR), Alex Conn (2Y FR), Bryce Benhart (3Y FR), Ethan Piper (3Y FR), Brant Banks (3Y FR), Jimmy Fritzsche (3Y FR), Michael Lynn (3Y FR), Cameron Jurgens (4Y SO), Broc Bando (5Y JR), Trent Hixson (5Y JR), Matt Sichterman (5Y JR)

Notable returning walk-ons: Ezra Miller (3Y FR), Nouredin Nouili (3Y SO)

Incoming: Henry Lutovsky (FR), Branson Yager (FR), Teddy Prochazka (FR)

Second in the Big Ten in rushing yards per carry and per game; 31st nationally in power success rate, which is a metric that tracks short-yardage success on third or fourth down; 36th nationally in line yards, which is another metric that sets out to divvy up rushing success between runners and blockers; you don’t get such favorable end-of-the-year numbers if your line played poorly. 

There were times in 2020 where Nebraska’s offensive line wasn’t the strength it was billed as, was it ever really a consistent hindrance to winning football? 

Remember, this was a group that, in week one against an Ohio State team that played for a national title, largely held its own and opened up some nice holes on the ground. 

Inconsistency was an issue more so than just poor play. Sure, there were bad games smattered throughout the short season—Purdue comes to mind—but there were also some really strong games. Nebraska ran the ball well on Northwestern, in fact that Nov. 7 meeting was the worst day for the Wildcat defense in terms of run-stopping during their regular season. 

And, of course, the last image of this group was rather bulldozer-esque. Nebraska ran over Rutgers to the tune of 365 yards. A bad Rutgers run defense? Sure, but Nebraska was also starting three freshmen and a sophomore that day. 

And that’s what 2021 will look like. 

Three key seniors depart from the 2020 squad, two of them starters, with the third being an oft-used rotational piece in Boe Wilson. Had Wilson stuck around for his final year of eligibility in Lincoln, he might have grabbed a starting spot. (Then again, maybe not. His entry into the transfer portal makes sense.)

In the other two—both guys hoping to start NFL careers—Nebraska is losing two of the most experienced offensive linemen the program has seen. No one in program history has started more consecutive games than Brenden Jaimes’ 40. 

Jaimes opted out of the plus-one game against Rutgers, so his senior year consisted of seven contests. At no point during them could you look to Jaimes and say, “Yeah, he’s a problem over there at left tackle.”

Offensive line coach Greg Austin challenged the Texas native to be one of the best left tackles in the Big Ten, maybe the country, before the season, and he wasn’t that, but that was always going to be a high bar to clear. Doesn’t mean the fourth-year man had a bad year. Jaimes wasn’t particularly special, but no one on this offense was. Jaimes, truthfully, might have been the steadiest, which this offense desperately needed.

He cracked heads at the line, moved well for his size in space, and was a leader of the football team. In the short-term, Nebraska will miss his play.

On the other side of the line, Matt Farniok was a little more scattered. Playing at right guard full-time for the first time, Farniok was noticeable, which isn’t a good thing for linemen. 

I can’t speak to the intricacies of the position, and I think it’d be a disservice to the folks who can and do, so I won’t try, but the speed of play looked to bother Farniok. He described playing in a telephone booth as opposed to an island at tackle, something that was a serious adjustment. Every movement has to be precise. 

Farniok had his good moments, but he also had rough ones. None were more noticeable or costly than the strip sack he allowed at the end of the Iowa game. Farniok was beaten with a swim move several times by several different players. To a layman’s eye, that seems like a quickness thing. 

The other three guys that played the vast majority of snaps during the season are still in their developmental stage. That’s redshirt freshman left guard Ethan Piper (6-foot-4, 300 pounds), sophomore center Cam Jurgens (6-3, 290), and redshirt freshman right tackle Bryce Benhart (6-9, 330). 

Piper got hit with a few penalties at sporadic though untimely moments. Benhart, too. Jurgens was benched in a game mid-year because of his snapping. But you expect growing pains with young players, particularly line players in a conference with unforgiving lines in established places. Still, all three showed improvement throughout the year and offered plenty of glimpses of their considerable promise. 

Nebraska looks like it found a diamond in the rough in Piper, a Norfolk kid with exceptional athleticism.

The reason Farniok was moved to guard is because Nebraska wanted to fast-track Benhart’s development. He’s huge, with a strong base and uncommon athleticism. A former 4-star and high school All-American, Benhart was considered a future offensive pillar the moment he stepped on campus. Nothing about his play this season changed that. There were times he stone-walled edge rushers. 

Nebraska still has plenty of faith Jurgens can become a special center. He needs repetition to get truly comfortable snapping the ball; you can tell when he’s in his head. When the snap is on target, Jurgens is absolutely crushing someone. Did he have as many viral pancakes this season as unsightly snaps? It seemed close.

I don’t mean to gloss over the snapping stuff, but there’s only so much you can say about it. I wrote during the season about where they can go with it from a technical standpoint, but Jurgens is the swing guy for this line. If he’s to struggle again for stretches, consistency will once again be a tough thing to find. If he’s great—and he was much, much cleaner after the benching—they can be great.

Knowing that spring ball can change minds and competition will likely be a buzzword for the next eight months around here, you can probably still pencil in four names on the top line of your o-line depth charts at home. (I assume you crazies have those.) It’ll be Piper at guard, Jurgens at center, Benhart at right tackle, and the guy who took Jaimes’ place against Rutgers at left tackle. 

Turner Corcoran (6-6, 300) became just the sixth true freshman lineman to ever start a game for Nebraska in that Dec. 18 meeting and the first to ever do it at left tackle. The top player in the state of Kansas during the 2020 cycle, a high school All-American, and one of the highest-rated recruits Nebraska has ever signed on the o-line, Corcoran showed up to Lincoln with just as much fanfare as Benhart. 

When he signed on the dotted line, it sort of felt like Corcoran was joining Benhart in bookending the Nebraska line for the next four years. It seems like he’ll be first in line for the starting job in 2021, and we’ll get to really see how that “group of the future” looks in the present.

Going from Jaimes to a first-time starter, there will be some growing pains. Would Nebraska like to go through a year without those for once on the line—2019 with Jurgens, 2020 with Benhart and Piper—probably, but the best way to stop being a young team is to play the young guys so they become experienced guys. 

The vacant guard spot is interesting. Nebraska might not have a bad option in the mix for it, which should inspire a lot of confidence in whoever earns it.

Ezra Miller (6-6, 325) and Nouri Nouili (6-4, 320) are walk-on guys who should not be forgotten. Miller’s a former 4-star recruit who played one year at Iowa then walked on at Nebraska. Nouili started seven games for Colorado State as a true freshman in 2019 and then earned a seat on the charter plane four times his first year in Lincoln. I think both have the ability to grab the spot, maybe a scholarship too, and run with it.

Trent Hixson, a starter at left guard for all of 2019, might be the odds on favorite to land the fifth spot in 2020, but his come-out-of-nowhere camp leading up to the 2019 season goes to show Austin will take the guy who gives him the best chance to win. 

If that’s Hixson or maybe someone like Broc Bando, don’t be surprised. If it’s Miller or Nouili, of maybe someone from the 2019 class like Michael Lynn, don’t be surprised.

Brant Banks can be a swing tackle on the two-deep; Nebraska really likes him. One of the true freshmen, be it Teddy Prochazka (6-8, 280) or Henry Lutovsky (6-6, 320), could even crack the two-deep. 

This will be a young line, but it has the potential to be a deep one. It’s one of the spots where Nebraska has recruited the strongest under coach Scott Frost. Look at the size that has been added in the last three classes alone.

  • 2019: 6-9 Benhart, 6-7 Jimmy Fritzsche, 6-6 Lynn, 6-6 Matthew Anderson (transferred), 6-4 Piper
  • 2020: 6-6 Corcoran, 6-6 Alex Conn
  • 2021: 6-8 Prochazka, 6-7 Branson Yager, 6-6 Lutvosky

Strength coach Zach Duval can put meat on bones when they get to campus—talk about one of the best performers on this staff so far—but there’s been a clear mandate from the get-go to bring huge frames along the offensive line to Lincoln. The fruits of that labor should start showing, perhaps as early as this year. 

The unit has to cut down on the penalties, and sacks were allowed on standard downs at too high a rate (but not as much on passing downs, a weird quirk). Can you confidently say you feel amazing about the offensive line going into 2021? Maybe not. That group had a large percentage of the mental mistakes that killed drives last season.

Can you say you’re worried about it? Definitely not. They can’t throw the ball for Nebraska or run routes down the field, and statistically they did their part at a good clip in the running game. If Austin, also the run game coordinator, can get Nebraska to commit to a style of running, that’ll help even more. 

Could consistency still be a bit of a question mark on the line next season? Maybe, especially if it’s super young. 

But the group feels like it has a higher ceiling than a Nebraska offensive line has had in some time. 

Score: 7/10

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