With the 2021 campaign in the books and an offseason full of recruiting and transfer portal-ing underway, it’s as good a time as any to look at where each of Nebraska’s position groups sit heading into spring ball.
We’ll be breaking down this series into nine position groups—receivers, tight ends, running backs, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers, defensive backs, specialists and, of course, quarterbacks—and giving them a 1-10 score, with 1 meaning the group isn’t looking too good and 10 meaning it’s in great shape and you, the Husker fan, should be excited.
Next is the offensive line. Let’s take a look at who the o-line room is losing, returning and adding from the 2022 recruiting class and transfer portal, if any.
Losing: Cam Jurgens, Matt Sichterman
Returning (years in the program): Nouredin Nouili (3rd year), Turner Corcoran (3rd year), Bryce Benhart (4th year), Teddy Prochazka (2nd year), Ethan Piper (4th year), Brant Banks (4th year), Broc Bando (6th year), Trent Hixson (6th year), Michael Lynn (4th year), Alex Conn (3rd year), Henry Lutovsky (2nd year).
Incoming: Kevin Williams (1st year transfer from Northern Colorado), Hunter Anthony (1st year transfer from Oklahoma State), Justin Evans-Jenkins (1st year)
Notable walk-ons returning: Ezra Miller (3rd year)
Of all the positions groups at Nebraska, the offensive line may have struggled the most in 2021. First-year o-line coach Donovan Raiola inherits a group that loses two starters in center Cam Jurgens, who declared for the NFL draft after spending four years in the program, and right guard Matt Sichterman, who is moving on after spending five years with the Huskers.
The Husker o-line was around average in run blocking but poor in pass protection. According to a couple key run-blocking statistics from Football Outsiders—stuff rate and opportunity rate—the Huskers were standard. Nebraska’s stuff rate, which tracks the percentage of carries by running backs who are stopped at or before the line of scrimmage, was 17.2%, 56th in the country. For opportunity rate, the percentage of carries (when 4 yards are available) that gain at least 4 yards, it was 48.5%, or 61st.
The pass-protection statistics weren’t as kind. The Huskers allowed 29 sacks, which tied for 10th in the Big Ten and 80th in the nation at the end of the regular season. Their sack rate, a statistic that quantifies how often a defense sacks the quarterback based on the number of dropbacks the offense had for all non-garbage time pass attempts, was at 8.1%, ranking 102nd.
Nebraska’s passing-down sack rate, a statistic that measures the unadjusted sack rate for pass attempts on passing downs, was 12.2%, ranking 115th. It’s standard-down sack rate was 5.2%, ranking 61st.
The Huskers did shuffling and experimenting along the offensive line mid-season. Prochazka, a true freshman from Elkhorn South, and Nouili, a Norris High School grad and Colorado State transfer, were inserted into the lineup for the Northwestern game. Prochazka started at left tackle, which moved Corcoran to right tackle for Benhart. Nouili started at left guard in place of Piper and was awarded a scholarship before the Ohio State game.
The Prochazka-Nouili-Jurgens-Sichterman-Corcoran lineup lasted a little more than one game, however, as Prochazka suffered a season-ending knee injury against Michigan. Due to the injury, Corcoran slid back to left tackle while Benhart took over on the right side, where he began the season.
Competition will likely be wide open along the offensive line in the spring. Maybe the biggest issue is finding a center. During an appearance on ‘Sports Nightly’ head coach Scott Frost said there are options within the program for that role.
“I think we have a lot of guys who can play center,” Frost said on Dec. 16, one day after the opening of the early signing period. “We have to figure out through spring ball and fall camp who the best five are, and there might be a new addition or two there as well before all the dust settles. But Nouri has played center before, Piper’s played center, Hixson’s played center. I think some other guys would have the ability to play center. And again, it’s about finding the best five and figuring out how it all fits together the best, and we’ll have a lot of reps to figure that out.”
Raiola has seen three additions to his room that weren’t with the program in 2021 in Northern Colorado transfer Kevin Williams Jr. and Oklahoma State transfer Hunter Anthony, as well as class of 2022 recruit Justin Evans-Jenkins. The Huskers likely aren’t done searching for more o-line help in the transfer portal.
The 6-foot-5, 330-pound Williams is a Nebraska native and Omaha North grad who has starting experience at both guard and tackle at the FCS level. Anthony has experience playing guard and tackle in the Big 12 and was Oklahoma State’s starting right tackle in 2020 before a season-ending foot injury. Both will be viewed as a possible instant-impact additions to the o-line at either guard or tackle.
Like many o-line recruits coming from the high school level, Evans-Jenkins will likely need time in the program to build his strength and technique before he’s able to make an impact on Saturdays. Raiola has a plan for developing his o-linemen at Nebraska.
“We’re going to build them up from the ground up. I think that’s the most important thing. Everything matters,” Raiola said. “Right now, developing their strength, helping them to understand how important nutrition is for the whole athlete, and getting the fundamentals down.”
Considering the loss of Jurgens, the unit’s leader and quarterback of the line, and Sichterman, plus it being the first year of a new teaching style from Raiola, Nebraska’s o-line has plenty of questions surrounding it. The portal additions are intriguing and may provide starting help, but until success is seen, it’s hard to believe there will be much of it. The Husker o-line gets a score of 4/10.