We’re scoring position groups this week for Nebraska and we’ve reached the final day for the offense. Based off 2018 performance, returning production and incoming talent, we’re basically power ranking Nebraska’s roster heading into the 2019 season. Each group will be getting a score on a 10-point scale.
Last but not least, we have the. . .
Returning: senior Christian Gaylord, junior Brenden Jaimes, junior Matt Farniok, junior Boe Wilson, junior John Raridon, sophomore Matt Sichterman, sophomore Broc Bando, redshirt freshman Will Farniok, redshirt freshman Cam Jurgens
Returning production: 33 of 60 total starts from 2018
What will Nebraska’s offensive line look like in Week 1 next year? Who takes the field first?
It’s an actual question, because right now there are a number of answers. That’s what happens when you lose three of five starters on the offensive line to graduation. When healthy, Nebraska’s interior linemen were Jerald Foster, Cole Conrad and Tanner Farmer. Boe Wilson slid into the full-time right guard role only after Conrad was forced out of the lineup with an injury.
In total, the Huskers have 13 scholarship offensive linemen. Among them, those 13 have a combined 46 career starts. Thirty-seven of those come from Nebraska’s two tackles, Jaimes and Farniok, and many think Farniok is playing out of position.
We’re not going to spend too much time on Jaimes because he’s easily Nebraska’s best lineman. Which makes it all the more important he has settled in as quarterback Adrian Martinez’s blindside protector. Jaimes moves his feet well, is athletic enough and another offseason in the Huskers’ strength program should help him take that next step. All-conference? Not yet, but he’s getting there.
So let’s consider the other options elsewhere.
Does Desmond Bland, one of the better JUCO offensive line prospects in the country, start right away? Many thought he had a shot at being Nebraska’s next center. Now there’s some doubt as to whether he’ll make it to Nebraska, and if so, when.
Does Bryce Benhart challenge for playing time right away? It’s rare for a lineman to do so in the Big Ten and has been even rarer at Nebraska. When Jaimes started as a true freshman in 2017, he was just the fifth to do so in program history and the 11th to even appear in a game in their freshman season. Benhart certainly has the size — 6-foot-8, 303 pounds — and skill to warrant giving him a look (he’s one of the gems of the 2019 class for a reason) but he’s not taking Jaimes’ spot and that means beating out Farniok on the other side.
A run through Big Ten depth charts from the final week of the season showed only one true freshman offensive lineman and four redshirt freshmen. Nebraska rolling with Benhart would almost certainly bring with it growing pains and I’m not so sure the Huskers will want to operate on a timeline that allows for that. The clock has started and it’s time to win.
So then does Nebraska choose to keep Farniok outside at tackle and stick with Boe Wilson at right guard? For two seasons, fans wanted the coaching staff to put Wilson at that spot and leave him there. That desire was answered this season, with Wilson starting the final nine games, but he’s only 6-foot-3 and over 300 pounds. There’s still some work left to be done before anyone can confidently say Wilson has his spot locked up.
And what about center? Nebraska hasn’t had a true center, a Rimington Trophy-worthy center in some time. It went with Tanner Farmer in the middle last year to some success but it was a stop-gap solution. Now Farmer is graduated and it looks like a converted tight end will get first crack at winning the job.
Head coach Scott Frost and the rest of the offensive staff decided midway through the season to move Cam Jurgens from tight end to center. At 6-foot-3, 270 pounds, with a strong frame and plenty of athleticism, Frost cited a vision of a bright future for Jurgens at the spot. But a broken foot suffered almost right after the move put him on the shelf. Nebraska played it smart long-term and slow-played him back to health, but that also meant Jurgens got no reps and no game action at center.
If he’s the guy heading into 2019, there will absolutely be growing pains.
Finally, we’re at left guard. Who replaces Jerald Foster, a team captain? The remaining candidates — John Raridon, Broc Bando, Will Farniok — have no experience.
There’s a possibility for attrition along the line. Someone like Christian Gaylord, a fifth-year senior who has only seen mop-up duty as a Husker, could grad transfer. There’s a possibility one of Nebraska’s o-line commits doesn’t make it to campus.
Maybe the best place to begin the walk-on program’s resurrection is on the offensive line with a weight-room-killer like AJ Forbes or a depth-chart-riser like Trent Hixson.
But Nebraska got beat in the trenches too often in 2018. The run game had a stuff rate that ranked 59th nationally and the passing game had a sack rate of nearly nine percent on passing downs (79th nationally). And, as many fans will painfully remember, Nebraska had its share of struggles trying to pick up short-yardage first downs.
Does that all change for the better or worse with those three seniors walking out the door?
The most telling quote from Frost after the season-ending loss to Iowa was almost certainly about the line play.
“What disturbs me right now is that Iowa is a bigger, stronger football team. I never thought I’d see or hear that or say that about a Nebraska football team,” Frost said. “That we can fix. We can get bigger, we can get stronger. … I look forward to the day where we’re not going to get pushed around by anybody.
“I want to get to the point where I look across the field and don’t think they are bigger than us. That shouldn’t happen at the University of Nebraska.”
That can be directed at the front seven on defense all the same, but Nebraska’s ground game was stymied against the Hawkeyes. The four explosive runs (10 yards gained or more) were the fewest in nearly a month and a half.
For the second year in a row, Nebraska will largely rely on internal development along the offensive line. How much Zach Duval can accomplish with the group in his second offseason will go a long way toward telling us what kind of unit the line will be in 2019.
Martinez’s improvisational ability will help smooth any transitions that need to be made, but that can only go so far. He needs protection, especially in Big Ten play. Nebraska can’t afford to take any steps back on the line.
Justification: There are entirely too many question marks with the group. Four of the five positions could very well be up for grabs this offseason and most of the options are unproven. There’s room for this to rise, but this is a group to monitor closely.