Countdown to Spring: Offensive Line

Like almost every position on the field, there's only so much you are going to learn about the offensive line this spring. But that would only really be all that important if this line didn't have that much to prove. They do…….and then some. Statistically, this may have been the worst offensive line in Husker history. When you are at that point, it's time to start over, which they do this spring.

When it comes to rushing the ball, Nebraska fans beam with pride, knowing that their University sported some of the best rushing teams in the history of collegiate football.

Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it?

It probably never seemed farther away than it did last year as the 2005 Huskers put together the worst rushing performance by average in the history of Husker football.

If that wasn't bad enough, they were amongst the worst teams in the conference in protecting the quarterback – something I am sure Zac Taylor could attest to, though, we know he never would.

So, with all that "luster" going into this season, a spring where most people aren't used to learning all that much about the team, will be the first opportunity for offensive line coach Dennis Wagner to get his group to doing what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to do it.

We'll break this group down by categories in what we think each has to do or is expected to do this spring.

The first category is "The Next Step". It is for those players, who got at least some time last year on the line, who have to take their game to the next level. I will put them in order from top to bottom as to who I think will have the biggest impact this spring, along with a brief explanation as to why.
Matt Slauson – Slauson proved that even with a rudimentary understanding of the offense, he's physically more than capable of handling the position. He's quick off the ball, uses his hands well and that's while still being too heavy and playing a minimal amount of time due to experience. He'll be on the two-deep at least, no matter which side he's slated to play.
Cornealius Fuamatu-Thomas – With an apparent medical granted to him based on an early season-ending injury in 2004, Cornealius comes back with more experience at tackle than anyone else. I don't know that, that is such a good thing, because Thomas got beat pretty consistently last year. Whether it's his quickness off the line or still not totally grasping the offense, he struggled more often than not. He's got the experience, though, and with yet another green group of outside blockers, he should see plenty of time.
Brock Pasteur – He's got the strength as that is all anyone talked about once he arrived at Nebraska. But he never did get the offense down to the point he was going to see the field for a meaningful amount of reps. He's had an entire year now to do that, so Brock now has to put that impressive physicality to good use.
Chris Patrick – Not the prototypical tackle by this staff's definition in regard to size, but Patrick has the strength and the sheer physical ability to pull it off. What he might lack is simply that innate ability to be a tackle in this offense. I would expect that he'll get plenty of time this spring to prove he's playing the right position or whether or not he should be moved back inside.
Lydon Murtha – He's physically got the upside to be an ideal tackle and a darn good one, but he hasn't quite managed to combine that with the ability to play his position instinctively. His youth could have something to do with it, because it seems that he's thinking out there more than he should. Murtha has the aggressiveness that coach Wagner likes so much, but as long as he's tentative in his play, it's going to be hard for him to stay on the field.
Mike Huff – He's got the size and definitely the strength, but it would appear it's either the offense that's keeping him relegated to the bench or there's something else. To look at him, Huff is a specimen and he's got pretty good quickness overall. Going into his third year now at Nebraska, Huff has to make a stand and show up or he's going to get passed by some of those that are either coming in or have been waiting in the wings to get healthy or their shot to play.

The next category is "It's About Time". This is meant to indicate those players, who for reasons of injury, redshirting or something else, didn't appear on the field last season. It's those players that could definitely make an impact in their first year on the field.

Andy Christensen – It's arguable, but not overly, that Christensen's loss was the biggest this group had going into last year. Throughout the entire off-season and practices leading up to the season Christensen was proving that it didn't matter which guard position it was, he was taking one and it was doubtful he was giving it back.

He's strong, uses his leverage very well and this kid has an attitude. It's that kind of attitude that you want to see down in the trenches. He's just as soon as hit you as look at you and if he can stay healthy, one of the starting guard spots should be his.
Jordan Picou – The praises have come over and over about the potential of this junior college transfer. But he like every other lineman that has transferred from the junior college ranks for the fall, Jordan wasn't in shape to go his first year at Nebraska. Combine that with eventual shoulder surgery, Picou got to sit back, absorb the playbook as best as he could and see just where he fits in.

Jordan has the talent, he's strong and like Christensen, he blocks with as much tenacity as he does ability. Considering the fact that at just 6 foot, 2 inches tall, he's been slated to play tackle, that lets you know just how much confidence the staff has in him.
Victory Haines – Unlike every other offensive lineman who has transferred to Nebraska from the junior college ranks, Haines should see the field his first year. His arriving in January is a big reason for that as all of his predecessors at the position arrived in fall, all either not in shape or not able to acclimate fast enough to get on the field right away.

That along with his impressive frame and ability to pass block make him extremely likely to break the two-deep as early as this spring and possibly grab the starting position in fall. Haines still has over a month to absorb the playbook before spring, so he's got all the advantages the other JUCO linemen didn't have and I would bet he takes full advantage.
Craig Roark – There were probably more than a couple of tense moments for Roark last year, wondering if he would have to sacrifice his redshirt to help a struggling offensive line. Fortunately for him that didn't happen and this great point-of-impact player can now take his shot at cracking the two-deep this spring.

Roark was initially going to be a center, but it looks now as if he he'll move to the guard position, which is fine, because either side will have plenty of bodies thrown in there to see what kind of combination surfaces. The physicality and the playbook were issues with Roark last season, but let's face it – there isn't a player on this offense, who hasn't had the exact same issues. With a year under his belt of just learning and getting bigger, it's time to see what Roark can do.
Rodney Picou – Rodney had the frame coming in, which said that you could develop him into a physically daunting lineman. Now he just needed the time to get the offense down, the techniques learned and get strong enough for the position.

All that has been a work in progress which has been slowed by shoulder surgery. He shouldn't have any problems with knowing the offense, but knowing it and executing it in an actual game are very different. Where he is at physically will be the biggest question right now and it won't take long in the spring before we realize where that is
Jacob Hickman – Now finally being able to take the field, a year of working out, getting bigger and stronger has hopefully paid off. Hickman is slated to work at center and honestly, despite the fact that Kurt Mann will be a two-year starter coming in, I think this position is possible to take. If you are someone that can run the offense, but also dominate at the point of impact, something Mann hasn't done consistently since he took over the spot, you've got a shot at the position.

With the two major categories taken care of, let's wind it up with a possible depth chart coming out of the spring, which, of course, is worthless when it's all said and done. It's the fall that matters, but who has the advantage going into the fall does have the advantage overall. With just three weeks to learn the offense, those coming in have a significant challenge and while they may be physically ready to go, mentally, that's a whole different issue.

LT
- Matt Slauson
- Lydon Murtha
LG
- Andy Christensen
- Craig Roark
Center
- Kurt Mann
- Jacob Hickman
RG
- Greg Austin
- Rodney Picou
RT
- Cornealius Fuamatu-Thomas
- Jordan Picou

Now just for the sake of covering some bases, let's make an assumption of where the linemen coming in will fit in, but we won't assume just what kind of impact they will make at this point:

LT
- Matt Slauson
- Lydon Murtha
- Carl Nicks
LG
- Andy Christensen
- Craig Roark
- Cruz Barrett
Center
- Kurt Mann
- Jacob Hickman
- Ricky Henry
RG
- Greg Austin
- Rodney Picou
- D.J. Jones
RT
- Cornealius Fuamatu-Thomas
- Jordan Picou
- Keith Williams


If this tells you anything, it tells you that the Nebraska coaches did what they needed to do in addressing many of the needs on the offensive line, some of them dire. But considering the fact that three of those linemen slated right now as starters (Mann, Austin, Fuamatu-Thomas) are seniors, that means for the class of 2007, there will have to be yet another solid crop of bigguns coming in. Ideally, you'd like to see another five.

The good news for 2008 is that none of those juniors right now (Jordan Picou, Brock Pasteur, Chris Patrick, Brett Byford) are current starters. I say that's good news, because when you are rebuilding, which this staff is most certainly doing in regard to the offensive line, it's nice to know that you are going to have a few of these guys around for awhile.

It seems that for years now we have been saying of the offensive line that they are a young group going into the season. Between injuries, departures and guys that simply don't work out, that's been pretty much the case. This group has arguably been void of that kind of continuity you want since way back in 1997 when Tom Osborne was still at the helm.

There's no position that isn't a work in progress, regardless of how good it is, but this group epitomizes the term. It's been an on-going process, sometimes a frustrating one, at finding a group that not only works well together, but can execute on the field. For Dennis Wagner, it's his job to figure out who fits and who doesn't, which players work and which don't and who has the aggressiveness to bring back some sort of intimidation along one of the most storied units in Nebraska history.

And it all starts back up this spring.

Stay tuned to see what happens and stay tuned for our next segment as we continue the countdown to spring. Next up……….Wide Receiver


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