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T A D    S T R Y K E R
September 2, 2009

With Joe Ganz having graduated, the biggest question mark of the Nebraska football program this summer was at quarterback, so Cornhusker fans should be encouraged to hear that the news at the end of fall camp is generally good when it comes to junior Zac Lee and true freshman Cody Green, who has emerged as the No. 2 signal caller.

In fact, offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has been so effusive in his praise of Lee and Green lately that it almost makes you think that quarterback will be a strength for the 2009 Huskers. We’ll watch a few games before we decide on that one.

Over the summer, plenty of people assumed that the running game would be more important than ever because of the Huskers’ lack of experience at quarterback. Since then, a key element of the running game – junior Quentin Castille – has been dismissed from the team, and Roy Helu Jr. has had a couple more minor episodes with hamstring tightness. The Husker Nation is fascinated with Rex Burkhead, but it pauses and draws a nervous breath when it realizes that Nebraska is a pulled hamstring away from putting a true freshman out there at starting I-back.

Then again, we’ve always known that the offensive line will be the true measure of how effective this edition of the Husker attack will be. Maybe Lee will throw for 250 yards and two touchdowns a game, but I suspect that the running game will need to be improved this year if Nebraska hopes to approach the 35 points per game it put up last season.

The offensive line should be a strength for the Huskers. Left tackle Mike Smith, who has 12 starts to his credit, said the o-line will be a cohesive unit capable of improving NU’s rushing output, which rose from 144 yards per game in 2007 to 169 last fall.

That’s the hope around Nebraska, anyway. The one place where NU has a clear advantage over Kansas in the Big 12 North is in the offensive and defensive lines. The Husker o-line has more than twice as many career starts as KU’s and although the defensive lines are equal in experience, Nebraska’s has more talent. Colorado has comparable talent and almost as much experience in its o-line, but can’t match the Huskers in its defensive front. The same could be said for Missouri.

Nebraska’s defensive front proved itself consistently last season. I don’t quite get the same feeling of assurance about the offensive line. On too many occasions last year, Nebraska failed to convert third-and-short situations on the ground, even with the powerfully-built Castille carrying the ball. Can this team run between the tackles with success this year?

"Oh, yeah, definitely!" said Smith. In fact, he looked at me a bit quizzically, as if surprised I’d asked that question. "We have the wide receivers to spread ’em out, and once we spread ’em out, we’re just going to pound the ball."

The left side of the line, with Smith (12 starts) in his second year at tackle, Keith Williams (nine starts) at guard and Jacob Hickman (24 starts) at center, looks solid. The right side is a question mark, with Ricky Henry and Andy Christensen likely rotating at guard and Marcel Jones and D.J. Jones at tackle. Christensen is the only one of those four who has started a game. Having Jaivorio Burkes sit out the season with an undisclosed health problem is a concern.

Throw in Derek Meyer (guard) and Mike Caputo (center), and you’ve got the makings of a very deep offensive line – if they can develop continuity. And this time next year, things should be rock-solid up front (Meyer and Christensen are the only seniors), especially if Burkes comes back.

Smith, a junior, is not thinking about next year. He is convinced the line will show excellent cohesiveness over the next few weeks.

"I think we’re definitely starting to come together." He said. "I think they’re all legitimate guys who can go in there and start. I’m not worried about it at all. We’ve had so much work this fall camp; everybody’s been moving around to different positions, so they’ve had their share of reps at each. We’re good with that."

Even with Watson’s multiple version of the West Coast offense firmly ensconced in Lincoln, the official Husker fan lexicon still includes the phrase "pound the ball," (although "pound the rock" has been expunged) so it’s good to hear an offensive lineman use it. Will the walk exceed the talk?

Will the Huskers really be able to pound the ball with Helu or Burkhead in the backfield? Will Lee be able to score touchdowns and pick up key first downs with rollouts and options? And will we ever see a fullback become a legitimate part of the offense again?

If the Huskers don’t get some positive answers on the rushing front, NU will look for a lot of magic in Lee’s right arm this fall.


Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive