The 2016 Nebraska football season offered a mixed bag of results and when starting to dig under the surface of wins and losses, the good and bad can often be attributed to the performance of the offensive line. This was no exception for the Big Red. Injuries were the theme of the year for Nebraska’s big men up front as early as fall camp.
Offensive guard Jerald Foster went down with a torn knee ligament and was projected to be out for the entire season. Nebraska would start tackles Nick Gates and David Knevel, guards Sam Hahn and Tanner Farmer with Dylan Utter at the center position. Both Hahn and Utter were former walk-ons and when Knevel would eventually go down due to injury, another walk-on would step in and serve admirably in Cole Conrad.
Ultimately, these players could help blow out Fresno State and Wyoming and hold off the likes of Northwestern, Indiana and Maryland. However, when injuries became too great, a severe lack of depth forced the wounded to play against elite opposition (Ohio State) and again when they were simply ground down too far to recover at the end of the year (Iowa, Tennessee).
While it was tough to watch Nebraska’s offense at times due to the offensive line’s struggles, there is a silver lining to some of these gut-wrenching moments. Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh has had the opportunity to preserve some of the best prospects that the Huskers have signed in quite some time at the positions he oversees.
Over the first three classes of Riley’s tenure, Nebraska has signed 14 offensive line recruits with a total of 99 offers from major conferences. 2015’s class alone featured four prospects that averaged 11 major offers a piece as the new Husker staff continues to build recruiting momentum.
Gates and Foster likely retain their spots at starting left tackle and left guard, respectively in 2017 as they’re arguably the best offensive linemen on the roster. With Utter moving on, it appears that sophomore Michael Decker will pick up the slack at center while Farmer likely remains at right guard and Knevel has a chance to retain his right tackle spot.
It’s important to note that the Huskers have more than much-needed returning experience up front. They also have that aforementioned talent backing it up giving Nebraska a roster that provides legitimate depth for the first time in a number of years.
This means that should a player go down, there will be another that’s capable of performing efficiently ready to step up. It also helps prevent situations like last year when Gates turned what appeared to be a minor injury into a major one.
After the regular season finished, Gates admitted that he had been playing hurt. His injury became progressively worse as he played on due to both the lack of depth behind him and his own drive to be counted on as Nebraska’s finest in the trenches. He was clearly playing a step or two slower by the time the Huskers took on the Hawkeyes and Volunteers versus when he faced Fresno State’s best. Tennessee’s Derek Barnett only highlighted that in the 2016 Music City Bowl.
Young players that may very well see time this year are redshirt freshman Matt Farniok and sophomore Christian Gaylord at tackle, redshirt freshman John Raridon who has worked at both center and guard and Boe Wilson, a scrappy Missourian who projects best to the guard position. After some initial mixed reviews, it sounds like sophomore Jalin Barnett is ready to push the starters to their limit as well.
Don’t be surprised to hear about strides being made by Bryan Brokop or 2017 signees Brenden Jaimes, Matt Sichterman and Broc Bando, four players that held 45 major offers between them.
Nebraska finally finds itself with ample talented bodies up front again, especially at the interior positions (though they are admittedly a bit green). With Gates looking to complete his junior year and Knevel moving on after 2017, the Huskers are putting in the effort at finding quality tackles to help ease the sting of their departures such as former Penn State commitment Chris Bleich.
While Nebraska isn’t exactly back to the days of Milt Tenopir’s 1994 group, Cavanaugh has made appropriate short-term sacrifices with redshirts and is working to provide the Big Red with a major component of a nationally competitive football team again: a championship-level offensive line.