Football doesn’t return until August. That sucks. So let’s refuse to stop football talk. Let’s keep the anticipation flowing.
We're continuing our look at ten players that might become the most interesting men in the Huskers’ locker room.
No. 10 — Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Damion Daniels
No. 9 — Sophomore defensive back Dicaprio Bootle
No. 8 — Junior outside linebacker Alex Davis
No. 7 — Junior center Michael Decker
A week ago today, Monday, April 30, we kicked off this series with No. 10, Damion Daniels.
I showed you this play
ignore everything else.
watch how far into the backfield damion daniels gets on this play. pic.twitter.com/3GZKFcyuRk
— Derek Peterson (@DrPetey15) April 30, 2018
I pointed your attention to the immediate push Daniels got off the snap into the backfield. Several on Twitter were quick to point to one very important detail of that play: the center spot. The optimist looks at Daniels, the realist looks at the snap.
It wasn’t great.
Quarterback Tristan Gebbia fumbled it and maybe that, more than anything else, is what caused the play to go awry. There were four such center-quarterback exchanges in Nebraska’s Red-White scrimmage on April 21 (by my count). There were also plenty of instances where the center on the field was overpowered by whoever he was going against.
Due to injury last season, the Huskers started two different men at center. Neither of them played in the spring game. Neither of them took meaningful reps in the spring at all. Cole Conrad, the early-season starter in 2017, and Decker, the late-season starter, would theoretically be the top two guys if healthy. And, if healthy, the job would almost assuredly belong to Decker.
The 6-foot-4, 305-pound, Omaha product came in against Northern Illinois on Sept. 16 in place of an injured Conrad, then started the next four games. Each of the Huskers’ top two rushing totals in conference play and three of the top four came with Decker as the starting center.
Former line coach Mike Cavanaugh lauded Decker’s “cerebral” approach and from right tackle to left tackle, everyone said the communication improved once Decker came in. When Decker met with the media postgame, he was almost always concerned about two things: was everyone on the same page, and did he have his feet, his eyes, his hands (you know, the intricacies of the position) in the right spots?
Let’s go back to that first-down play at the end of the first quarter and do a little projecting. If Decker was on the field instead of redshirt freshman Hunter Miller — a good 30 pounds lighter than Decker — would the exchange have been fumbled? Maybe not. Would Daniels have gotten off the ball and gotten Miller moving backward so quickly? Maybe not. (That answer is “No” if you ask Twitter.)
Everyone can agree that offensive line play is one of if not the most crucial area of improvement the Huskers need to make in 2018 to reverse last season’s slide. And the most important position on the offensive line has been manned by a fourth-year left guard, a fourth-year right guard, a freshman guard and Miller all spring.
“If you cross-train at guard and tackle, you should be able to play both," line coach Greg Austin said earlier in the spring. "The unique thing about center in this offense is he has the calls. He has to make calls, just like damn near every other offense. His call is the first call that he makes. I can’t always say that a guard can become a center just for that reason.”
So, you're saying communication, the thing Decker is best at, is important?
The quarterbacks have learned a new offense without their center. The running backs have learned new schemes without their guy in the middle creating holes for them. There’s an element of familiarity and cohesiveness to line play that, when you have it, turns pretty good lines into nasty lines and Nebraska doesn’t have that right now.
If Decker comes back healthy, he’ll be the guy. He should be. His performances last season proved that much. But his re-entry into the fold will be a process just like everything else. Instead of working through the kinks in the spring, the Huskers will be trying to do it in the fall instead of sharpening all those finer points the coaching staff says makes the offense fire on all cylinders.
Is that a process that lingers into the start of the season? Akron at home on Sept. 1 should be a tune-up, but what about reigniting an old flame with Colorado a week later? Nebraska’s first conference game is on the road against a Michigan Wolverines team whose defense ranked third in the conference in yards per play and points per game last season (there are two All-Big Ten first-teamers returning to that front seven).
Decker cracks this list not because of anything he did this spring but because of everything he didn’t get to do. Color me intrigued.
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.