Matt Turman remembers it well.
Trent Hixson was at left tackle during one of his games at Omaha Skutt Catholic High School. Skutt doesn’t give its quarterbacks much freedom to audible into different plays like others at the next level sometimes can. But there are basic changes they can make, like switching a run play from one side to the other depending on where the strength of the defense is.
Skutt calls that an opposite call. But on this play, the quarterback made a mistake, and Hixson caught it.
“I remember in a game, our quarterback came up and he checked opposite. It was supposed to go to the left, and he checked it the opposite way and he shouldn’t have,” said Turman, Skutt’s head coach, through a laugh. “I just hear Trent yelling, ‘No!’ because he knew what way the play was supposed to go from where the defense aligned. And then the quarterback got flustered, and I remember him yelling, ‘Check original, check original!’ and we don’t even have that check.
“Trent just knew where we were supposed to run the ball, where it was supposed to go. He was always very good with that. He was the line quarterback in all reality for us.”
Hixson, now in his sixth year at Nebraska, has always been that way—a smart guy both on the field and off. The 6-foot-4, 320-pounder has always been strong, too. His 365-pound power clean is still the record at Skutt. He’s also fifth all-time in career tackles, pretty rare for a defensive tackle.
Smarts and strength are a good combination for any offensive lineman, but they work particularly well for centers. That’s a spot on Nebraska’s o-line left vacant after the departure of Cam Jurgens, a three-year starter who was taken in the second round of the NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.
If Nebraska were to play a football game today, Hixson would likely be the first-team center. But in today’s era of college football, where players are coming and going through the transfer portal at an unprecedented rate and programs are always on the hunt to inject its roster with upgrades, who knows if Hixson will be the one snapping the ball against Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland, in late August.
Nebraska isn’t done looking for help on both sides of the line of scrimmage. And one of its starting tackles from last year, Turner Corcoran, is rumored to possibly be in the mix to play center when fall practice begins.
While there are still unknowns about how the Husker o-line will look in the fall, there’s at least one fact: Hixson having this opportunity in front of him is quite the story considering how his career has gone with the Huskers. It’s been filled with ups and downs.
A former two-star recruit coming out of Skutt in the 2017 class, Hixson chose to walk-on at Nebraska. He earned a scholarship in 2019, the same season he started 12 games at left guard for an offense that averaged 203.2 rushing yards per game, third in the Big Ten. But in 2020, he backed up Boe Wilson, the opening-game starter at Ohio State, and Ethan Piper, who started the last seven. Last year, Hixson has primarily been a backup since 2020, but got spot starts at left guard against Oklahoma and Michigan State before Nouredin Nouili became the full-time left guard.
Turman knows what his former left tackle has gone through. To earn playing time only to have it taken away.
After being recruited to Nebraska as a walk-on defensive back out of Wahoo in 1992, Tom Osborne needed a scout team quarterback who knew how to run the triple option. Turman was the guy for the job and did well enough that Osborne kept him at quarterback for the rest of his career.
As a sophomore in 1994, Turman’s number was called out of necessity when starter Tommy Frazier battled blood clots and backup Brook Berringer suffered a second partially-collapsed lung. Turman started against a ranked Kansas State team, becoming the first walk-on to start at quarterback for the Huskers since Travis Turner in 1985.
But once Frazier and Berringer were healthy enough to return later that season, Turman went back to his reserve role. That’s the similarity between Turman and Hixson. College football was different when Turman played. The transfer portal didn’t exist. But it does now, and Hixson is still at Nebraska.
“Just think about the loyalty he’s giving to that place after you get replaced. I would have to think that the thought at least crossed his mind, but I don’t know, I’ve never asked him,” Turman said. “But you get that taste of playing, I can attest to that. I played for a couple games and it just made you want to play more. But sometimes that’s out of your control. I think that’s why sometimes kids test the portal or they want the portal, because they want something that maybe they can take a little of that control back and get a chance to get back on the field.”
On top of that, Hixson and the rest of his o-line mates watched as their position coach, Greg Austin, was fired and Donovan Raiola was hired.
If that winding path full of adversity had happened to someone else, maybe they’d test the portal to see if there’d be an easier path to consistent playing time. Hixson isn’t that kind of guy, though.
Like Turman, Matt Vrzal played for the Huskers and was Hixson’s o-line coach at Skutt, a position he still holds. He understands what makes Hixson tick.
“He’s a grinder, and he understands that football at that level is a business,” Vrzal said. “And the quicker kids understand that, that they have to have a return on investment as far as the coaching staff goes and the player playing, that’s reality. And in their eyes, Trent wasn’t providing the return on investment needed to play more.
“And instead of pouting and transferring out and doing what others do, it was bear down and get working. And he’s got himself in a position to potentially start.”
With all the change Nebraska’s offense is undergoing this offseason—installing new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s attack, breaking in a new quarterback for the first time in four years and trying to find running backs and receivers emerge from crowded rooms—developing a healthy run game would ease the transition.
That naturally creates at least some pressure for Raiola’s unit to perform in a season where his head coach, Scott Frost, has a restructured contract in a make-or-break year. Though he learned from a well-respected o-line coach in Harry Hiestand as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame and later the Chicago Bears, the 2022 campaign will still be Raiola’s first as a Power Five position coach. Like any new job, there will be a transition period.
Raiola’s teaching his own style of blocking, which differs from Austin’s. Raiola doesn’t care to detail this style to those outside the program, which is his right. But Frost has provided hints.
“To me, what he coaches is really modern,” Frost said of Raiola in December. “It’s what I believe in. He’s going to get the guys ripping off the ball and running and trying to get people moved. It’s a little different than what some other people coach. It’s what I believe in, and based on our personnel and the type of offense we run, I think it’s the best thing for us. I think he’s as good a guy as there is to teach those things and what we want to get done.”
Said Nouili, the projected starter at left guard: “Just the new techniques, the new offense has been a blessing in disguise a little bit because we’re working hard, we’re getting tired at different times than we’re used to and the way we’re running the ball right now is kind of crazy.”
If the Husker offense makes true on those statements, that style would fit what Hixson does best—locking on to a defensive lineman and driving him back.
“As far as controlling the line of scrimmage as a downhill blocker, which is what they’ve said they’ve wanted to do,” Vrzal said, “that would fit more of Trent’s strengths.”
When Hixson committed to Nebraska, Vrzal was upfront with him. To get to where he wanted to go, Hixson needed to work on his movement skills.
“At the time, he and I talked about it, I said, ‘If you want to go to Nebraska, some stuff you’re going to have to work on is foot speed, with jump rope and a lot of other things,’” Vrzal said. “Physically, he’s strong enough. Mentally, he’s way far advanced, he understands concepts of games very well, blocking schemes and things like that. So it’s just going to be those quick-twitch feet and getting those to move and that kind of stuff is going to be something he’ll have to work on.”
Sliding from guard to center shouldn’t be much of an issue, either. Guards and centers often work together in blocking schemes. At Skutt, Vrzal has all of his linemen work on snapping the ball, too. So Hixson, one of the backup centers last season, has done plenty of that in his football life.
“It’ll be second nature to him, it should be smooth and seamless,” Vrzal said of Hixson going from guard to center. “The playbook, the plays and the concepts, even the techniques, shouldn’t be a problem.”
Finding a new batch of leaders will be important for a team that lost a lot of them from last year. Hixson has shown he can provide it, whether he’s on the field or not.
“He’s one of the few people left in society who will forgo his own thing for the greater good,” Vrzal said. “He’s got no problem with people talking crazy about him if he has a bad game or if he plays bad. But then in the same breath, you see him in a game he didn’t really factor into (against Iowa last season), he was the teammate that was over when Logan Smothers felt bad about himself and lifted his head up and said, ‘Hey, it’s a team thing, we’re all in this together.’”
tough moment. really tough spot for a young quarterback.
— Derek Peterson (@dr_petey) November 26, 2021
Though Hixson’s positions have changed over the years, who he is as a person hasn’t. Whether he ends up as the starting center this fall or not, Nebraska has a player who’s been in it for the long haul.
Hixson’s perseverance helped him get his foot in the door of the starting center competition. In his final year, he has the chance to write one heck a story.