For a fourth year, we’ve counted down the 10 most intriguing Huskers. Earlier, I wrote about who would have earned spots 11-20 if the countdown was extended out and shared a look at the previous three groups of Huskers from 2018, ’19, and ’20.
The intent of this exercise is to highlight players who might have the largest impact on the upcoming season, one way or the other, with their play. It’s not a ranking of the best players on the team and it’s not even really a rundown of the most important players to accomplish X, Y, and Z. It’s as the name suggests: the most intriguing talents on the roster.
Things kicked off with Nick Henrich at No. 10 and Oliver Martin and No. 9. Then, No. 8 Quinton Newsome, and No. 7 Gabe Ervin Jr., No. 6 Adrian Martinez, and No. 5 Matt Sichterman to the group. Last week added Luke Reimer at No. 4 and No. 3 Damion Daniels to the list. Earlier this week, No. 2 went to Samori Toure. With the top spot in our 2021 rankings, we have. . .
No. 1: Cam Jurgens
It’s quite possible, perhaps even likely, that Nov. 27, 2020, was the inflection point in Cam Jurgens’ collegiate career.
If Nebraska is to be successful in 2021, it’s because the offense took off; and if the offense is to take off, it’s because the offensive line paved the way; and if the offensive line paves the way, it’s because Jurgens looks like the kind of center head coach Scott Frost envisioned when he switched the decorated high school tight end to offensive line as a freshman. In the middle, Jurgens is not just a swing piece for the Huskers next season. He’s the swing piece.
Great teams have great line play. Make no mistake, Jurgens can be great. Though his haywire snaps through his first two seasons of play have been maddening and too frequent, Jurgens has the tools to be a standout center at a place built in part by standout linemen. “He’s smart, he’s extremely athletic, and he’s exceptionally explosive,” Frost said last season.
Against Iowa, in a hostile environment, Jurgens hit the low point. High and to the right, the Beatrice native sailed a snap well beyond the outstretched arm of his quarterback, Adrian Martinez. Nebraska ate 19 yards on the play because of it. It was Jurgens’ fourth misfire of the first half and Frost sat him down because of it.
Social media lit up. Husker fans questioned whether it was time to try Jurgens at a different position. Some in the media wondered the same. With timing being one of the most crucial pieces of Nebraska’s offensive machine, a bad snap screws up everything. Frost posited later that on drives where NU was clean—no penalties or missed snaps—they were scoring on 90% of their drives to that point in the season. At that point, questions about the center were justified.
But Frost stuck with his guy. Some called that stubbornness, a determination not to be proven wrong, to which I guess we’ll find out that answer in 2021. After sliding Matt Farniok from right guard to center late in the first half, Frost went back to Jurgens to begin the second half. Nebraska rode with Jurgens from that point on. Immediately after the game, Frost was measured.
“He’s too good of a player not to have on the field,” the head coach said. “He’s too good a player to even consider moving him out of that role or moving him somewhere else. But we can’t continue the way we’re going. … Cam cares as much as anyone on the team, so he wants to get it fixed.”
Jurgens went on Martinez’s new podcast, “Athletes Unfiltered,” recently and talked about that care. Nebraska was the place to be for him, not because of the coaching staff that was in place during the bulk of his recruitment (Mike Riley’s) but because of what playing with the red ’N’ on the side of his helmet would mean.
In a roundabout way, that led to the offensive line. To that point in his playing career, Jurgens had been everywhere but the o-line.
“I come in here as a tight end and I work my ass off right away to learn the offense, I’m with coaches every day to learn routes and schemes and everything, went through summer, fall camp, and then get into the season and Coach Frost comes and sits me down after one of the practices—and I had a pretty good practice, I had a lot of good blocks that practice—and he just sits me down and asks me some questions,” Jurgens said on Martinez’s podcast. “I’m thinking in my head, ‘Oh, s***, is he gonna ask me to go to d-line or something? What’s the deal?’
“And he goes, ‘What does it mean for you to play for Nebraska? What does that mean to you?’ I didn’t know where it was headed. This is weird, a little random. I just wanna make this state proud, I want to do everything I can for this team, and whatever I can do to help the team the best is where I want to be at. Because I was thinking in my head maybe I was going to defensive, maybe d-line or outside ‘backer. We’ll see. And then he goes, ‘I want you at center next year.’”
At that point, Jurgens said he was around 250 pounds and thought “I don’t know if I wanna gain up to like 290 and weigh that much.” Frost told him to think it over.
“A couple weeks go by and I’m like, ‘Alright, I’m just gonna cut weight,’” Jurgens continued. “I dropped down to 235, I got pretty lean, and then all the sudden week four or so in the season Coach Beck is like, ‘Hey, Cam, you’re in the o-line room this morning for meetings.’ I’m like, ‘Alright, bet.’”
Shortly after, he broke his foot. Over the course of the next two months, with lifting and eating being the most he could do, Jurgens put on 40 pounds. There are two types of learners: visual people who can just see something once performed in front of them and commit it to memory, and motor skill learners who need to actually perform actions for them to stick. Jurgens says he falls into the latter camp.
“I felt like half the time I was injured making that transition,” he said. “I need to get those actual reps in practice and I think I had less than a dozen full, healthy practices before that first game (in 2019). More or less, I was watching practice and getting everything down for the scheme, but when you’re just thrown in the fire, some things go a little faster than what they are and it just takes time for it to slow down.”
Speed is baked into this offense, so if things are moving too fast for you to process and appropriately react, you’re done. Nebraska talks about needing quick-blinkers at quarterback, but the same can also be true at center. Offensive line coach Greg Austin says Jurgens needs to be the comptroller of the unit.
Nebraska can go from a normal pace to a tempo play at the drop of a dime. And in Frost’s scheme, everyone on the line is pulling and moving and getting out in space.
Getting everything set, making the appropriate checks, recognizing the front you’re seeing, and then getting where you need to be once the ball is snapped, all while Martinez is clapping and yelling for the ball behind you, it’s not hard to see how that can be a hectic situation if you’re not comfortable. “When there’s a lot going on and things are getting sped up, some things can fall by the wayside,” Jurgens said.
Austin called it mental. Jurgens talks about focus. For two years, the center has had the issue creep up. When Jurgens is on, he is crushing defenders in front of him. When Jurgens is in his head, things snowball a bit. Frost brought in some help to get a repeatable technique committed to muscle memory for Jurgens last season.
I talked to Matt Hoskinson, a three-time national title-winning guard and center for Nebraska in the mid-to-late 90s, for a piece last year. He had nothing but praise for Jurgens. There were a few technical pieces he pointed out, which we addressed here.
“Once you master the art of stepping and snapping at the same time, that’s when everything is really, really easy,” Hoskinson told me then.
This season, Jurgens will be in his fourth year at Nebraska and his third-year as a full-time starter. NU won’t move him out of center because who else is there with Jurgens’ sky-high ceiling? And if he was injured off and on throughout the first year of his transition to center, perhaps patience is all that was needed.
“I’m tired of hearing my name in the news about it and seeing that s*** on Twitter.”
Spring ball went well for Jurgens. He went unnoticed in the May 1 scrimmage.
“I know personally that you’re working your ass off to get that thing right, and you’ve already made a ton of improvement,” Martinez told Jurgens on his podcast.
Truthfully, consistency in his snap is what separates Jurgens from what he’s been and an all-conference kind of center. He can be that this year.
In the season-opener last year, against an Ohio State defensive tackle that would go on to become a Second Team AP All-American in Haskell Garrett, Jurgens disposed of his man with ease.
That’s the promise. Trust that’s what Frost has seen a ton of during practices. “He’s a hell of a blocker,” Hoskinson said. “Might be our best blocker. He’s a very humble young man, just a really good kid, so I’m rooting for him. I know it’s a source of a lot of frustration for Husker fans, and I understand that completely, but it certainly isn’t for lack of effort.
“He’s an interior offensive lineman and I think some day we’re going to see him playing on Sundays.”
Of course, to be a consistent starter on Saturdays, there has to be a mastery. Going into year three, the snapping thing has to be fixed. To his credit, Jurgens has the same sense of urgency. “It’s gotten way better, changing different things here and there,” he said. “But just mentally being focused and dialed in to everything. … When I’m getting all these reps and things are starting to slow down around me, we’re not going to have those problems.”
Sky’s the limit then. For him, and perhaps, by extension, Nebraska’s offense.