If Nebraska football turns things around in 2022 and qualifies for a bowl game for the first time since 2017, it will be because it handled transition well.
The Huskers enter this season with four new assistant coaches—five if you count Bill Busch, who spent last season as an off-field analyst in the program but was promoted to special teams coordinator in January. The offense is being tweaked to fit what offensive coordinator Mark Whipple wants. There will be a new starting quarterback for the first time in four years. The defense is replacing seven key contributors from a top-40 scoring defense that allowed 22.6 points per game, the fewest since Nebraska has been in the Big Ten.
But when it comes down to it, the Huskers won’t reach the success needed unless the offensive line is better than it was last season. According to offensive line statistics from Football Outsiders, Nebraska was average at run blocking and below average in pass blocking in 2021, though fans likely don’t need numbers to tell them it struggled to block Big Ten pass rushes.
The Huskers ranked 60th in the country in opportunity rate (48.5%), the percentage of carries that gain at least 4 yards when 4 are available. That’s not bad by any means, but a couple key pass-blocking stats are. Nebraska ranked 104th in sack rate (8.1%) and 115th in sack rate on passing downs (12.2%).
Much of the talk surrounding the o-line this season has centered around first-year coach Donovan Raiola, who’s teaching his own style of blocking. His predecessor, Greg Austin, was hired as Florida International’s offensive line and run game coordinator in January.
The name of the game for Raiola is simplifying what he’s asking his linemen to do.
“It takes a lot of thinking out of it. Sometimes when you think too much at that position, it puts you in a trance,” Raiola said.
Scott Frost, who’s entering his fifth year as head coach, is in favor of the switch. He said Raiola’s way of doing things almost frees the linemen to do more.
“A lot of what those guys are doing up front has helped them. I think it’s just kind of taken the handcuffs off them and let them go,” he said after the spring game.
Raiola wants to find the best five linemen on the team and figure out a way to get them on the field together. That may mean position changes for some. Trent Hixson is an example. The sixth-year senior from Omaha Skutt High School started 12 games at left guard in 2019, became a reserve in 2020 and 2021 with some spot starts and is now the leading candidate to be the starting center, a role that Cam Jurgens held for the past three seasons.
But a position change could involve Turner Corcoran, too. The 6-foot-6, 300-pounder is athletic enough to do it, Frost said in February.
“Turner’s a guy I think is probably capable of playing all five positions if we needed him to,” Frost said. “He did a great job at left tackle, looked great at right tackle when we moved him over when Teddy (Prochazka) played. Teddy and Turner are both gonna miss spring with injuries. So they’re around and learning and able to do some things, but again, that’s going to help some other guys get reps. And Turner in particular, we’re probably going to have to figure out where he fits the best.”
Corcoran was limited by injury this spring, the second offseason camp in which he missed time. He didn’t begin the 2021 season fully healthy, yet stuck it out and played in every game, starting the last 11. Along with Prochazka, who suffered a season-ending leg injury in his second career start against Michigan, Corcoran didn’t compete in this year’s spring practices as he worked to get his body closer to 100% for the fall.
Corcoran came to Lincoln as a top-50 national recruit according to the 247Sports Composite, but after being thrown into the fire as a true freshman, in a conference where older and more experienced linemen fair better than young ones, his play hasn’t backed up the recruiting hype.
But to those who know Corcoran well, there’s a confidence that the big man will continue to improve as he develops. Kevin Stewart is one of those people. He’s the head football coach at Free State High School in Lawrence, Kansas, and coached Corcoran in his senior year in 2019.
Stewart said Corcoran has a mean streak in him. That came out from time to time, but especially when the competition ramped up.
“For Turner, he played his best when it was good competition, or tough,” Stewart said. “When he was going against a kid he knew he could handle, not to say that he took it easy on the kid, but I think he was aware that he was a lot better than certain guys. But when it was competitive, that’s when he played his hardest.”
Stewart first heard about Corcoran while he was coaching at Blue Valley North High School in Overland Park, Kansas. Corcoran was a sophomore at the time, and Stewart recalls the day when he first saw him. Corcoran and some buddies were in attendance for a prep volleyball tournament.
“I just remember seeing how big he was. A good-sized kid, good frame,” Stewart said. “But the other thing that stuck out to me was, he was very aware of the fact that he wanted to be a good football player.”
Stewart’s Blue Valley North team that season had talented players, including quarterback Graham Mertz. He signed with Wisconsin as a four-star recruit in the Badgers’ 2019 class and is expected to start for the third straight year this season.
“I just remember Turner being aware of Graham and who Graham was,” Stewart said. “I could tell that Turner had kind of wanted to be on that level as a player as well.”
Stewart has had his share of athletic big guys during his coaching career. Miles Emery, a 6-1, 275-pound defensive linemen was a three-star prospect in the 2018 class who went the junior-college route and landed at Butler Community College before playing at South Dakota.
But Corcoran was different.
“Turner, for his size and strength, his footwork and agility was on a different level,” Stewart said.
The funny thing is, once Corcoran graduated, Free State saw a talented sophomore lineman come through by the name of Calvin Clements, who’s currently rated a three-star offensive tackle prospect in the 2023 class by 247Sports. Clements owns Power Five offers from Nebraska, as well as Oklahoma State, Baylor, Iowa State, Minnesota, Kansas and Kansas State.
“This kid is like a Turner 2.0,” Stewart said. “He’s literally the size, the strength, the agility, the speed, the footwork—it’s like the exact same player over again.”
Stewart has seen things that make him believe an athlete the caliber of Corcoran will turn things around and be the versatile lineman that can play wherever Frost and Raiola need, whether that’s at tackle, guard or center.
But above all else, having a frustration-free offseason would help his development. That’s something that Corcoran hasn’t had yet in his young career.
“A lot of people can be hard on some of these guys,” Stewart said. “You’re talking about Turner, he comes in as a freshman during the 2020 year with COVID, and there’s all kinds of stipulations and regulations that he can’t get coached the way he needs to, he’s not able to use the facilities, he’s not able to be a part of the team, and I know those sound like excuses, but that’s reality. When you’re a freshman and you come in at 19 years old and you can’t really get the coaching and get all the benefits you need because of COVID, I think that really carries over into your performance on the field.”
Then there’s the problem of going against the Aidan Hutchinsons, David Ojabos, Boye Mafes and George Karlaftises of the world. Many considered them elite pass rushers in college. All of them will play in the NFL. Hutchinson and Karlaftis were first-round picks in this week’s draft.
Nebraska’s o-line had to face all of them in a brutal schedule that wound up being ranked the sixth-most-difficult according to teamrankings.com.
“I think that people have a tendency to overlook how hard it is to come out and block a guy who’s going to be playing in the NFL with that talent,” Stewart said. “But to do that as a freshman, or even a sophomore, I think that that’s pretty lofty expectations for any kid.”
Sam Stroh knows Corcoran well, too. He’s been the head basketball coach at Free State for seven seasons and coached Corcoran on the hardwood.
Stroh played a small part in helping Corcoran find a connection at Nebraska. He’s a UNL grad and helped the Husker staff become aware that there was a rather large and athletic Division I athlete in Lawrence. Stroh was even on many of the visits Corcoran took to Lincoln.
During his first year as Free State’s head coach, Stroh remembers when he met Corcoran. He held a camp for middle schoolers, and Corcoran showed up. He didn’t look or play like the others his age.
“Right away, you could tell his feet and his hands were really good for a kid his size,” Stroh said. “He was not your typical eighth grader. He looked like a junior or senior in high school in terms of his frame and his overall height and weight.”
Corcoran started for Stroh for about half his junior year because he came into basketball season a bit nicked up from a long football season. Corcoran’s role at Free State was obvious—be big and play defense. He also had a knack for taking charges.
“He was willing to sacrifice his body and put in the way of the offensive player and take a charge,” Stroh said. “He was fun to coach and fun to be around.”
Stewart saw Corcoran over spring break working out on the Free State football field. Stewart could tell a difference in an attitude.
“He’s really, in my opinion, matured as an adult,” Stewart said. “He’s starting to, I think, understand the competitiveness of college football, and I could just tell that his attitude had kind of grown a little bit and he’s kind of grown from a freshman and sophomore into more of an adult and a man.”
How the 2022 Huskers handle transition is going to be the difference between progress and another season without it. Corcoran will be an important part of the o-line equation, we just don’t know where yet.
“I don’t think he’s going to shy away from a challenge or run away from a challenge,” Stewart said.