Over the last few weeks, we’ve been counting down the 10 Huskers with the highest intrigue factor heading into the 2019 season. We’ve reached the top five, and now there are only three names left to reveal. Here’s who we’ve covered so far:
- No. 10: Mike Williams, senior wide receiver
- No. 9: Jack Stoll, junior tight end
- No. 8: Cam Taylor, sophomore defensive back
- No. 7: JoJo Domann, junior linebacker
- No. 6: Dedrick Mills, junior running back
- No. 5: Collin Miller, junior inside linebacker
Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald has his son on roster in Paddy Fisher. That’s either a playful joke or it’s one of those conspiracy theories that’s actually 100 percent accurate. (It’s 100 percent accurate.) Now Nebraska has its own star father-son duo brewing with head coach Scott Frost and redshirt freshman center Cameron Jurgens.
“It was kind of funny the first time I met Coach Frost, he said, ‘Has anyone said you look like me? Because I get a lot of people that say I look like you,’ so I laughed at that,” Jurgens shared with me in May. Other members of the team also jokingly refer to him as “Coach.”
(Side bar: There was an Instagram post the Husker football team made during spring ball, a close-up shot of Jurgens with only his hands, his left shoulder and his face in clear view. Whatever had just happened, Jurgens had his hands ready for a defender to come at him. But it also looked like a quarterback waiting for a snap. It looked like Scott Frost, fully padded out, waiting for a snap. I thought it was Frost, told everyone I work with it was Frost and got incredibly excited. It wasn’t Frost. Oh well.)
((The only thing missing now is a “Taylor Martinez is Adrian’s dad” joke.))
While a lot of us think Jurgens looks like Frost, Frost thinks Jurgens could look like another former Husker great — All-American center and Rimington Trophy namesake Dave Rimington. When Jurgens made the switch from tight end to center midway through his freshman season, Frost had high praise for the Beatrice native.
Since then, Jurgens has been called one of the most athletic players on the team, one of the best blockers on the team and one of the youngsters with the brightest futures. All those things can be true, but having the burden of comparison to one of the greatest centers to ever play this game as a kid who has yet to actually take a Saturday snap at center can a little cumbersome.
He broke a bone in his foot last season and that cost him developmental time not just as an athlete but as a center. He missed reps that would have been helpful, which seemed a problem. He missed weight room time that would have been helpful, which also seemed a problem. At least, in theory. In reality, Jurgens has bulked up to somewhere around 270 pounds (where his huskers.com bio lists him but there’s always some degree of variation in those numbers) and physically looks the part. His weight gain didn’t cost him his burst, and while the foot is still something that needs a little TLC every now and again, Jurgens seems the leader in the clubhouse for the starting center spot.
Nebraska wants a very specific man in the middle of its offensive line, but that man isn’t easy to find. It’s why Scott Frost looked at Jurgens and asked him to make the move despite some initial hesitancy from the offensive player. This offense asks linemen to play in space and get to the perimeter quickly. It mandates that you’re in shape, while still requiring that nastiness you need to play in the trenches. To have a guy who can pull and get out in space on four straight plays, then line up on the fifth and knock a guy 5 yards back at the line of scrimmage is to have a star.
This, above everything else I think, is why Jurgens is Nebraska’s center.
“He fits that bill,” offensive coordinator Troy Walters told me in the spring.
The most important thing with him is to remember that he’s still incredibly young. This entire team is. Nebraska could conceivably run out a redshirt freshman first-time center and a true sophomore quarterback. Growing pains come with that.
You saw a handful of snaps go a little haywire in the April spring game. Nebraska is probably going to see more of those as the season gets underway and it rolls through September. It’s one of those situations where you just have to do it, keep doing it until you’re comfortable with the pressure and work through any mistakes. The hope is that first month — when Nebraska plays South Alabama, Northern Illinois and Illinois in three of its first four games — will provide some time to work out the kinks.
(Also, having as nimble a quarterback as Martinez is gives you a slightly larger margin for error.)
Patience will be important.
But Jurgens is also still working through understanding all the calls and checks needed from the center spot. There were a handful of times during the spring game where protection needed to slide from one side to the other, and while Martinez should be recognizing that and adjusting, Jurgens can also make those calls.
This, from the very first play of the spring game, is a good place to start. This is about to be a zone read play. Left tackle Brenden Jaimes is going to pull and take the middle linebacker and Martinez is going to read Quayshon Alexander on his left. He makes the decision to pull and run himself, but he isn’t expecting Casey Rogers to be there waiting for him. Jurgens and Trent Hixson both go to the same guy, while Boe Wilson takes the nose. Rogers needed to be accounted for, but he wasn’t.
Maybe you prefer Martinez make that call after going through what he went through last season, but a veteran center would see it too. Again, patience.
That’s going to be a necessary thing with what is almost an entirely green interior offensive line. But Jurgens has incredible athleticism and we can already see the ability. That’s what makes him so exciting. That’s what makes this thing feel like it can click right away and Nebraska can have offensive growth in Year 2 under Frost.
As it relates to Jurgens, I keep thinking about a quote former Alabama center Ryan Kelly gave to ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg ahead of the 2015 College Football Playoff about playing the position: “You have to be almost perfect all the time, but you're going to mess up more things that you get right at first. … A lot of things that make centers successful are trial and error.”
(This came from a really good look at the position as a whole. Recommended reading.)
If the last couple grafs haven’t made it clear: there’s a serious back-and-forth here when projecting that center spot this season. Long-term Jurgens will be fine; Frost thinks he’ll be great and there’s no reason to doubt his judgement. But we are, after all, talking about this upcoming season and Nebraska’s expectations are creeping up higher and higher as we get closer and closer to its start.
Jurgens will not be perfect. Does Nebraska need him to be? That’s a good question; two strong, seasoned tackles and a mature-beyond-his-years quarterback help, but center is still maybe the second-most influential position in a football game. Can he come out and render this whole conversation moot by being Dave Rimington 2.0 right away? Will he fall into the category of a guy who just won’t lose you games? That doesn’t sound sexy but it would be a successful first year. Will he stay completely healthy? That’s another important part of this thing.
There are only three names left ahead of Jurgens on this list. He’s a guy I don’t see lowering the Huskers’ floor too much if he struggles, but he’s someone who could absolutely bump up their ceiling if he finds a groove early on.
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.