Throughout the 2021 season, it became apparent that change was needed on the offensive side of the ball at Nebraska. So it’s no surprise that this offseason has seen plenty of it.
It started with the firings of four offensive assistant coaches in November. Since then, four new assistants have been hired while the coaching role for the running backs has yet to be officially filled. Mark Whipple and Mickey Joseph are the assistants who have grabbed the most attention, and for good reasons.
Whipple is fresh off a 2021 season at Pittsburgh where he called plays for an offense that ranked third nationally in scoring while his quarterback, Kenny Pickett, became a Heisman Trophy candidate under his tutelage. For many followers of Nebraska’s program, the imagination will run wild with the thought of a Scott Frost-Whipple offense in Lincoln with, say, highly-touted transfer quarterback Casey Thompson at the helm.
Joseph, a former Husker, reunites with his alma mater after recruiting and developing receivers at a high level at LSU, which has become an NFL factory for receivers under his watch. Joseph’s hire has already paid off on the recruiting trail, too, as he’s helped sign prospects from a part of the country that the Huskers haven’t tapped into much recently, Louisiana. Joseph played a key role in convincing a couple Louisiana natives, Trey Palmer and Decoldest Crawford, to commit to Nebraska. He’ll be coaching a receiver room that is full of potential, led by Zavier Betts and Omar Manning.
While the Whipple and Joseph additions should excite the fan base, the players in their rooms likely won’t see the success that Frost needs in a make-or-break season if the offensive line doesn’t show improvement. Because of that, new offensive line coach Donovan Raiola might have the most important job of all the new hires.
Raiola takes over an o-line that loses two starters in center Cam Jurgens, who declared for the NFL draft, and right guard Matt Sichterman, who moved on from the program after five years as a Husker. Nouredin Nouili, Turner Corcoran, Bryce Benhart, Teddy Prochazka, Ethan Piper and Trent Hixson are players who have Big Ten starting experience under their belts and are, as of today, returning. There will also be two transfers in the mix, including Kevin Williams Jr. from Northern Colorado and Hunter Anthony from Oklahoma State. The Huskers might not be done with o-line help from the portal.
What goes into being a o-lineman, and how difficult can it be to play? To help answer that, Hail Varsity turned to a local high school coach who knows what good o-line play looks like—Trevor Longe. Longe just finished his 25th year coaching football. This past season he served as Millard South’s offensive coordinator while also coaching the o-line—with help from Ryan Butler and Jeff Purcell—and quarterbacks. Longe has also had coaching stops at Millard West, Elkhorn South, Louisville and Nebraska Wesleyan at the small-college level.
For over 10 years, Longe was a coach at Dave Rimington’s o-line camp at Millard South. The camp had instructors like Brendan Stai, Aaron Graham, Chris Bober and John Faiman come through to teach young players o-line technique. Tunch Ilkin, an All-Pro offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the late 1980s, once coached at the camp.
“Rimington found a way to get him (Ilkin) to his camp for a few days, and I still use a lot of his techniques when working with high school offensive linemen today,” Longe said.
During his coaching career, Longe has had to adapt his teaching style and techniques to fit different offenses. During his time as offensive coordinator at Millard South, the Patriots started out as an I-formation offense but later transitioned to a spread/multiple attack based on personnel. Passing became a bigger part of what the Millard South staff wanted to do, therefore the style of o-line play evolved.
“I’ve always had a hand in the group work we would do with our o-line, because at the end of the day, the game still comes down to running the football effectively,” Longe said. “In my eyes, there’s a certain tempo and expectation that’s necessary for offensive linemen to develop to their full potential. I see a lack of attention to this detail when I see drill work in practices at all levels. This is a little hard to explain without showing an example, but finishing drills properly is not always emphasized the way it should be—especially when it comes to blocking in space.”
What are things that the average fan should know about being an o-lineman? To Longe, that’s a two-fold answer.
One is recognizing the intelligence needed to play along the line. Linemen are expected to process defensive line fronts prior to the snap, and blitzes after. They must be good communicators and adjust on the fly.
Another aspect is versatility. Linemen need to be strong enough to move a large human being back, but athletic enough to pull and block smaller, quicker defenders on the run, or block in space on a screen pass. Pass protection isn’t as easy as some view it, either.
Longe enjoys watching the o-lines from programs like Alabama and Kentucky. He knows a couple of Big Ten programs that routinely produce solid o-lines, too.
“Wisconsin and Iowa have tapped into the most valuable resource their states have: big kids,” Longe said. “Nebraska used to do this too, but it’s harder to supplement your depth with walk-ons these days, because the top walk-ons accept scholarships to other schools because it’s a $100,000 decision for their families.
“Nebraska needs to find a way to build their line depth with more Nebraska kids. That’s a resource we have, and those kids, if they choose Nebraska, are typically more loyal to the program because they don’t want to let their families or communities down. They’ll stick it out, and some of them will get in the rotation as a junior or senior. I think the coaches at Nebraska understand that, it’s just much more difficult to accomplish in the current climate of college football.”
Nebraska will be looking for a new center in 2022. Jurgens, a converted four-star tight end from Beatrice, fits the mold of the modern day center, who should be strong, smart and athletic.
“They’re asked to do so much that quality centers are hard to come by,” Longe said. “The center initiates all of the line calls. Most of the time, they identify the front and they have to make quick decisions that make or break the efficiency of the offensive line. If the center struggles with these tasks, the offense has no chance.
“The center is as valuable as the quarterback.”
What about guards? Longe says that specific position needs to be “beasts.” They’re the ones who deal with the strongest defensive linemen on a regular basis.
“They also have to be able to kick out big defensive ends and get out in space on linebackers,” Longe said. “Guard play gets a little lost in the conversation, but bad guard play is one of the first things you’ll notice if a team is struggling.”
And tackles? These are the players who often go to battle with the longest, most athletic defenders on the field—edge players. Husker fans saw plenty of them this season, including Nik Bonitto (Oklahoma), Jacub Panasiuk (Michigan State), Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo (Michigan), Boye Mafe (Minnesota), George Karlaftis (Purdue) and Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison (Ohio State).
“They have to be able to hook a d-end, pass block and move a guy off the line. Not to mention blocking in space in the screen game,” Longe said. “Height and wingspan matter the most here. They also have to have excellent technique and amazing footwork. The challenge is getting the right kids and developing them. This position needs the most one-on-one attention. You can’t hide a shaky tackle. They almost need a coach dedicated to their position alone. So much skill is necessary to be successful.”
The Whipple and Joseph hires provided a jolt of positive offseason momentum the program needed. That can be said of the commitment from Thompson, too. But as Nebraska’s offense ventures deeper into the offseason—winter conditioning started on Monday—it’s the development of the o-line under Raiola that will play a major factor in how the Husker offense looks in 2022.