This was a series we ran last December and it seemed to be pretty well-received. So we decided to bring it back. We’re scoring Nebraska’s position groups on a 10-point scale based on where things stand right now. Each day will bring about a different position group, but they will all be scored the same way. The three heaviest influencers in these scorings: 2019 play, returning production, and incoming talent.
Now that the defense has been covered, the attention is getting turned to the offensive side of the ball. We begin with. . .
Returning: Bryce Benhart (rFR), Ethan Piper (rFR), Matthew Anderson (rFR), Michael Lynn (rFR), Brant Banks (rFR), Jimmy Fritzsche (rFR), Will Farniok (SO), Cameron Jurgens (SO), Trent Hixson (JR), Broc Bando (JR), Matt Sichterman (JR), Brenden Jaimes (SR), Matt Farniok (SR), Boe Wilson (SR), Christian Gaylord (SR)
Returning Production: 100% of offensive line starts (60/60)
Cameron Jurgens and Trent Hixson have each started 12 straight games on Nebraska’s offensive line.
Boe Wilson has started 21 straight games at right guard.
Matt Farniok has started 24 straight games.
Brenden Jaimes has started 33 straight games.
Cohesiveness and continuity are big deals in sports. When head coach Scott Frost talked before the 2019 season about all the youth they had on offense and all the production they would return after the year, it’s hard not to think he was feeling at least somewhat optimistic about their offensive line situation going into the future.
Maybe not optimism for what they could be right away, but what they could become.
Right away, it was, expectedly, somewhat turbulent. Two things that were talked about but never given their proper credit (and I was absolutely guilty of this as well):
- A true freshman tight end converting to a center, not playing in a single game at that new spot his first year, getting hurt and then becoming the first freshman to start at center for a Nebraska football team since the NCAA reinstated freshman eligibility in 1972.
- Losing two seniors on the interior of the offensive line, one of them a captain, in Tanner Farmer and Jerald Foster, and replacing them with the aforementioned Jurgens and a sophomore/former walk-on who had only ever played in garbage time up to that point.
Those are two massively important subplots for a group as vital to offensive success as an offensive line is, in a season where the overall offense was expected to make a statistically significant leap. That’s not to say anyone should have anticipated just how incremental the 2019 gains would be on Saturdays, but rather to suggest last season was a growing one for offensive line coach Greg Austin and his room.
Nebraska missed Foster and Farmer in the interior. Jaimes and Farniok will be seniors in 2020, but there’s something to be said for having seasoned, veteran, outspoken linemen on the interior to steady the ship when things get rocky.
And Jurgens needed his time to adjust. He took a seat at halftime of the season-opener against South Alabama—Nebraska had 14 points, 1.7 yards a run on 30 carries, two sacks, and lots and lots of high snaps—and Will Farniok played the second half. Nebraska said after it wasn’t a benching, but a pre-planned timeshare between Jurgens and a guy in Farniok who had taken first-team center reps for the bulk of fall camp.
But Farniok only appeared twice more that season, in blowouts against Northern Illinois and Maryland. The job was Jurgens’ and Nebraska, from that point on, afforded him the ability to grow through the ups and downs.
Jurgens figures to be one of the central figures throughout the spring and summer and into fall camp. Is the snapping to a point where it’s second-nature to him? In talking with former Nebraska offensive linemen, I got the sense Jurgens was caught in a loop—afraid to snap the ball high, so he’s thinking about snapping the ball high, so he snaps the ball high, then he’s thinking about it again the next play.
Is he still thinking about it? The answer should be no.
Nebraska needs it to be no.
Quarterback Adrian Martinez needs it to be no. An offense built around timing and quick, early reads gets decimated when the timing is thrown out of whack.
As a blocker, Jurgens was at times the best on the offensive line. Frost has said on several occasions the Beatrice native has the best instincts on the team when it comes to blocking, and showed itself on the field in 2019 in several instances. Another year with strength coach Zach Duval figures to do him a lot of good.
Simply put, this offense in the Big Ten needs all-conference-level linemen blocking. Nebraska needs to be better blocking the edges, it needs to be better blocking the perimeter and it needs to be better blocking up the gut. That was a struggled early in 2019, and it sorted itself out later on, but when inside zone is a crux upon which so much else is built, it has to be a constant.
Last season Nebraska tied with Louisville for 89th nationally in line yards per carry, a metric from FootballOutsiders.com that splits rushing credit between the offensive line and ball-carrier. The line was worse on standard downs. Carries by running backs were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage just a shade over 20% of the time, a mark that ranked 81st nationally.
In pass protection, Nebraska gave up a sack nearly eight percent of the time (7.7%, 96th), and they were woeful when it came to protecting Martinez in obvious passing situations (12.6% sack rate on passing downs, 112th).
Which begs the question: will the five that start the 2020 season-opener against Purdue on Sept. 5 be the same five who started the 2019 season-opener simply because they’re all back? Are those jobs actually safe?
I don’t think so.
“Whatever they tell me to do and whatever is best for the team is all I care about,” the eldest Farniok said during the week leading up to the Huskers’ final game of the season. “I want this place more than ever to start rolling and start getting wins because people here have worked so hard and they have given everything they have. I want more than anything to be a part of that and finally getting over that hump to get Nebraska back on track to where it should be. Whatever they need me to do, I’m more than willing to.”
Matt Farniok has a 6-foot-9, 295-pound Bryce Benhart nipping at his heels. If Farniok is being pushed inside to guard, something that has been a consistent talking point by some since before the 2019 season began, it’s because Benhart is taking his spot at tackle.
Benhart is a former US Army (will always be that) All-American and viewed as a future cornerstone on the line, but is he ready after one year in Duval’s lab? Frost kept one eye toward the future with Jurgens and prioritized development, does he do the same with Benhart this year or is this the year 2018 and 2019 have been building toward? That will probably be answered by what Nebraska chooses to do with the Lakeville, Minnesota, product.
Other names could and probably should push for playing time, as well. Nebraska could potentially have three new starters on the line in 2020 if Farniok is displaced at right tackle. Whether that’s Benhart or someone else remains to be seen, but Broc Bando made a run at left guard late in 2019 and the Huskers have Christian Gaylord, Ethan Piper, Brant Banks and Jimmy Fritzsche waiting in the wings.
Austin has built this group up quickly and efficiently through his first three recruiting cycles at Nebraska. Turner Corcoran is another potential cornerstone piece. Don’t forget about Nouredin Nouili, a 6-foot-4, 285-pound transfer from Colorado State.
The offensive line coach certainly won’t be short on options this upcoming season, and in this case that’s a good thing. There’s no reason the five coming back don’t continue to improve and gel and the whole is better than each individual part because of it. If not, Nebraska will have someone hand-picked for this system to fit in.
That makes things a little less cut-and-dry than you’d expect from an offensive line that returns every single start from the previous season, and that probably played a factor in the fan score for this group; it had the widest range of any so far, and averaged out to a 6.4.
With potential to rise but lots left to prove, that feels right.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.