Pernell: Previewing the Offensive Line
Are they ready to take that next step? Scott Frost can scheme around subpar offensive line play for the most part. But this isn’t the AAC. This is the Big Ten. This is big-boy football. If Nebraska wants to start competing for conference championships – and beyond – the Huskers better start pushing people around up front. Who was the last team to win the Big Ten that didn’t have a formidable offensive line? Historically it doesn’t happen. From 1970-2001, Nebraska had at least one offensive lineman named all-conference. Since 2002, there have only been three: Richie Incognito (2003), Ricky Henry (2010) and Spencer Long (2012). If they want to turn the corner as a program and start competing with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State…heck…if they want to get over the hump against Wisconsin and Iowa, they better reverse that trend.
Coaches feel better about this group as a whole than they did last year. “We have more depth. We have more trustable bodies. That’s the best way to say it,” Offensive line coach Greg Austin said this summer. “We have more guys you can trust, who know what they’re doing, who know what the expectation is, know what the standard is, and are more familiar with what we’re doing. When you come in the first year, you’re trying to get the guys who are playing the most acquainted with what you’re doing. Now, more guys, especially through the second spring, get the reps they need to progress in the offense, then you see those guys learning it and earning it, and showing themselves to be worthy bodies.” Austin said he believes he has 12 trustable bodies. “Which is awesome because last year we had six or seven,” he said.
There has been no movement this offseason with the starting five. Coming out of spring ball, the top offensive line was: left tackle Brenden Jaimes, left guard Trent Hixson, center Cameron Jurgens, right guard Boe Wilson and right tackle Matt Farniok. Reoccurring injuries in the months since to Jurgens opened the door in fall camp for Will Farniok to receive the bulk of the reps with the 1s, but he’ll enter the season as Jurgens’ backup. Two of the five spots were open for the taking following the graduations of center Tanner Farmer and left guard Jerald Foster.
The team is fortunate to return a trio of starters who are experienced and battle-tested. Junior Brenden Jaimes started all 12 games last season at left tackle on his way to earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors from the coaches and media. The 6-foot-6, 300-pound native of Austin, Texas, came in as a four-star recruit and immediately impressed former offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh during his first fall camp. Despite arriving in Lincoln weighing just 250 pounds, Jaimes played his way past David Knevel and Cole Conrad, becoming only the fifth Nebraska true freshman to start on the offensive line, setting a Husker record by starting the final nine games at right tackle. Jaimes is Nebraska’s most talented and proven lineman. Greg Austin is extremely high on him and has commented in the past of his NFL potential. The Huskers are lucky to have him back protecting Adrian Martinez’s blindside.
At the other end of the line will be another junior, Matt Farniok, who was recently named one of two offensive team captains. Farniok started all 12 games for the Huskers at right tackle last year. The 6-foot-6, 335-pounder arrived in Lincoln as a consensus four-star recruit and one of the more celebrated Husker signees in a long time. After a redshirt season, Farniok played in seven games in 2017, starting two games at right tackle (Oregon and Northern Illinois) and two games at right guard (Northwestern and Minnesota). Farniok is a solid option at tackle, but the last two staffs have felt he is better suited at guard and has a higher ceiling working on the interior. He has struggled with speed rushers blocking on the edge as a tackle. Farniok gave up 24 hurries and 30 total pressures in 2018, which were the fourth most of any tackle in the Big Ten. He gave up just three sacks on those 30 pressures, but a lot of that was due to Adrian Martinez’s mobility. Long-term, the staff would like to move him to guard, but it looks like that possibility will have to wait until 2020.
The Huskers are solid at right guard with the return of Boe Wilson who played in all 12 games last season, starting the final nine, and earning honorable-mention All-Big Ten honors from the media for his play. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Wilson had been on the cusp of becoming a fixture on Nebraska’s offensive line going back to his true freshman season back in 2016. When Jerald Foster suffered an MCL injury during fall camp that year, the previous staff seriously contemplated going with Wilson in his place. The junior has only scratched the surface of his potential and still has another level he can take his game, which is exciting for coaches.
Last Friday, Scott Frost announced he had put Trent Hixson on scholarship. The former walk-on initially came to Nebraska after his scholarship offer from South Dakota was pulled after they filled up at his position. That’s a decision Bob Nielson probably regrets. Hixson spent spring playing both left and right guard, but eventually settled on the left-side, where he came out of April with the first team. The 6-foot-4, 310-pound redshirt sophomore out of Omaha Skutt was initially at tackle under the previous staff because of depth issues at the position, but was moved back to his natural position of guard by Greg Austin. He impressed Mike Riley and his staff during his work on the scout team during his first year on campus. Hixson appeared in four games off the bench last season and was a member of the travel roster for all five road games. Hixson is an aggressive run-blocker but still needs some work on his pass-pro. Some people probably thought he would eventually get passed up in fall camp by one of the scholarship guys nipping at his heels, but that hasn’t been the case.
Hixson’s backup at left guard is John Raridon, who came to Nebraska as a consensus four-star recruit and an Army All-American. Originally recruited to play center by the previous staff, Raridon eventually moved to guard and has appeared in just four games the last two seasons. Great expectations accompanied the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Iowa native, whose father Scott played offensive line for the Huskers in the early 1980s. Raridon has underwhelmed, unfortunately, and as a fourth-year junior, has officially entered the “Prove It” portion of his career. Will he close the gap on Hixson?
Another former four-star recruit, Matt Sichterman is backing up Boe Wilson at right guard. The 6-foot-4, 315-pound redshirt sophomore moved from tackle to guard this spring and has been mentioned by Greg Austin as someone who has really improved this offseason after appearing in four games last year.
The situation at center will be interesting to monitor this season. Scott Frost raised a few eyebrows when he name dropped Dave Rimington when describing the sort of potential he saw in Cameron Jurgens. Originally recruited as a tight end by the previous staff, Frost moved Jurgens to center in the middle of last season. When the 6-foot-3 Jurgens started the transition he weighed 235 pounds but is now listed at 285. He only practiced at center for a few weeks before breaking a metatarsal on his right foot, ending his freshman season and stunting the growth the staff was hoping he’d gain from his redshirt. Jurgens suffered a setback in February, but made it through the spring relatively healthy. He got the bulk of the reps with the No. 1 line in the spring, showing he had already gained a decent grasp of Frost’s offense. Jurgens had stuck around Lincoln for spring break to work with Greg Austin and get a better grip on calls and his role at center. Unfortunately, he suffered another setback post-spring and wasn’t full-go until the last half or so of fall camp.
Despite not being a full participant for much of August, Frost revealed he would start the season ahead of Farniok, who played with the 1s this summer. It’s clear this staff sees something special in Jurgens. “We started one man down in fall camp at center,” Frost told reporters on Friday. “The guys who were in did a really nice job. Will Farniok has a bright future here. He’s still young, but he did some really good things. (Ethan) Piper did some really good things being new to our program. AJ Forbes did well. (Josh) Wegener did well. That being said, we look a little different with Cam Jurgens back and full speed now. We have to keep him healthy, but I think he’s going to be a game changer for us on the inside of the line.” How much Jurgens ultimately plays in 2019 is unknown. He hasn’t played an entire season since his sophomore year of high school.
In his absence, 6-foot-3, 295-pound redshirt freshman Will Farniok stepped into the starting lineup. The last two staffs have been pretty high on his potential, though the decision to go with Jurgens points to not only his ceiling, but the fact that Farniok is still a year away. He weighed around 260 pounds when he enrolled at Nebraska in January of 2018, and despite the gains he’s made, could still use more strength to hold up the middle in the Big Ten. Could the offense be effective with Farniok, yes, but another year would be ideal. Frankly, that’s the case with every other player on this team at the position. Even Jurgens would benefit from another offseason of development before being counted on this early.
This summer, redshirt freshman walk-on AJ Forbes took most of the reps with the 2s thanks to the trickle down effect of Jurgens’ absence. The 6-foot-4, 310-pounder out of Bellevue West was praised by Greg Austin for the gains he has made since arriving last summer. Another walk-on, Hunter Miller, was expected to challenge for either the left guard or center positions this offseason as well. Unfortunately, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound redshirt sophomore out of Stromsburg as been injured for spring and fall camp. Frost mentioned Josh Wegener, who is a walk-on from Iowa Western CC. The 6-foot-2, 310-pound junior was ranked the No. 1 junior-college center in the nation by JCGridiron.com, after earning first-team all-conference honors despite going down in the ninth game with a Lisfranc injury in his foot, a torn ligament between his first and second metatarsals. At the time of the injury Wegener held several FCS offers, but the injury cost him those opportunities. He chose to walk-on at Nebraska after also considering Iowa State.
The long-term answer at the position might end up being true freshman Ethan Piper. The standout from Norfolk Catholic has gained 20 pounds since arriving on campus and is listed at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds. Piper had been recruited as a defensive lineman, but when Jurgens went down this summer the decision was made to move him to the offensive side. He has really impressed in his first camp. Piper was a Lincoln Journal Star Super State Pick as an offensive lineman, but he never played center in high school and is still working on learning to snap. He will put himself in the conversation at center next season after his redshirt.
The backup tackle spot took a bit of a hit when fifth-year senior Christian Gaylord suffered a season-ending knee injury halfway through fall camp. With 33 career games on both the offensive line and Nebraska’s field-goal and extra-point units, Gaylord was enjoying his best camp as a Husker. The 6-foot-6, 310-pounder had been backing up Jaimes at left tackle, but his experience at both tackle spots might have afforded the staff the opportunity to redshirt promising freshman Bryce Benhart. That might not be the case now.
The mammoth 6-foot-9, 295-pound Benhart is currently Matt Farniok’s backup and is considered the future at right tackle. He comes to Nebraska as a consensus four-star recruit ranked No. 121 (247 Sports), No. 139 (Rivals) and No. 275 (ESPN) nationally, making him the highest rated offensive line signee since Baker Steinkuhler in 2008. Benhart started at right tackle in the prestigious All-American Bowl, where he was named one of the captains for the West squad. Benhart held his own spending most of the game going one-on-one against defensive end Nolan Smith, the No. 1 ranked player in the 2019 class. Had Benhart decided to skip wrestling his senior year to enroll early, he may have pushed Farniok inside to guard. That eventuality will have to wait until next year.
With Gaylord out, redshirt sophomore Broc Bando has been taking reps at left tackle with the No. 2 offense. The Lincoln native came to Nebraska in 2017 by way of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. The 6-foot-5, 310-pound Bando played guard for the previous staff but is at tackle now. Greg Austin has commented about how big of a big step he has taken from last year. “Man, Broc, I can’t tell you how much he’s improved since we’ve arrived,” Austin said. “It started in his mind. He was a young kid that was trying to figure out his way and (now) he has a confidence about himself that permeates through his play.” If either Jaimes or Farniok miss an extended period of time, is Bando ready to fill in and allow the staff to redshirt Benhart?
Nebraska added six players to Greg Austin’s room through the 2019 recruiting class. Along with Benhart and Piper, the Huskers also welcomed Matthew Anderson (6-6, 255), Jimmy Fritzsche (6-7, 275), Michael Lynn (6-6, 290) and Brant Banks (6-7, 300). Fritzsche (LT), Piper (C), Lynn (RG) and Anderson (RT) have been playing with the 3rd team offensive line this summer.
Nebraska got beat in the trenches too often in 2018. The offense struggled on short yardage downs, and only converted 37.2 percent of their third-downs, a mark that ranked 86th nationally. A little over a third of its attempts came within four yards of the line to gain. Those are situations where the offensive line needs to step up. Those are downs where teams like Wisconsin and Iowa line up and just impose their will on you. Run it down your throat and see if you can stop it. Can Nebraska get to that point?
After only adding Will Farniok – a holdover recruit from the previous staff – in 2018, Greg Austin took a huge step toward rebuilding his room with this last recruiting class. He added six players who fit the physical profile he wants. Guys who are tall, long, and have frames that allow Zach Duval and Dave Ellis a few years to build. The staff really likes this group, and already have five-star talent Turner Corcoran and fellow Kansas native Alex Conn committed for 2020. They’ll add one or two more guys before signing day.
It’s going to take 2-3 years before the cumulative effects of recruiting and development get this position group close to where Frost wants it. How big of a step will this o-line take this year? They’ll return all five starters in 2020, when they have the potential to be a really good front line. But then they’ll need to replace three guys who will graduate with a lot of games under their belt. Will this group of youngsters be ready to step in and play well? Will they take a huge step back in 2021? When this position group is humming, they’ll want kids to redshirt their first year before spending the next couple seasons fighting for reps on the field-goal and extra-point units. They want to get to a point where you aren’t starting until your third or fourth years in the program. They want to have recruits like Bryce Benhart and Turner Corcoran waiting in the wings, not pressed into duty as true freshman. It’s going to take time. Position Grade: C+
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all-football website N2FL.com. From 2002-2014, he served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on talent evaluation, which included NCAA recruiting and the NFL Draft. He has analyzed and covered the NCAA and NFL for 25-years. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.