Last year, there were four freshmen that saw the field (three red shirts and one true). There were also one sophomore and two juniors that either started or saw substantial playing time. The offensive line was talented, deep and young. With another year under their belts, this position may be the most loaded of any of the positions on either side of the football for Nebraska.
Here is the post-spring report card for the offensive line:
1. Lydon Murtha - Murtha appears to have taken a big step forward from his sophomore year, when people might have been ready to write him off as a bust, to where he is at now. Murtha played primarily as a right tackle up to this point in his career, but looks to move over to the left side to replace Carl Nicks.
Murtha was an honorable mention, all-Big 12 selection last year after making eight starts, and missing the last four games to a foot injury. The knock on Murtha has been his inability to play hurt or be effective against the best pass rushers. Murtha will need to demonstrate to the coaches, and more importantly the quarterback, that he is up to the challenge in his senior year.
2. Mike Smith - Smith is a converted defensive end and has natural athleticism and strength that translates to him playing on the offensive line. Smith saw time last season as a red shirt freshman, which is amazing considering he really worked on the defensive side of the ball his red shirt season before moving to offensive line.
What you see with Smith is very promising. He has ideal height. He has the athleticism and the footwork that you want in your offensive tackles. What Smith doesn't have is a lot of practical experience playing the position. Call practice what you will, Smith isn't game-tested, but is still just a red shirt sophomore with his best days playing the position ahead of him. Mike is still a work in progress.
1. Mike Huff - Huff suffered an Achilles injury before the start of the season, but returned to play in six games as a junior. In total, Huff has started 19 games at the guard position, but still entered the spring as one of the few questions along the offensive front.
Huff was one of the players that I was particularly interested in watching during the spring game. Surprisingly, it appeared to me that Huff was one of the anchors for his line and may have taken some huge steps forward this spring. If Huff can play like he did in the spring this fall, and remain healthy, he can shore up the left side and help makeup for the potential loss of Andrew Christensen.
2. Keith Williams - There were rumors swirling around about the physical specimen that Williams was during his freshman year. Williams saw time in 10 games last season as a red shirt freshman. Williams saw a lot of time at the guard position in 2008.
There are a lot of high hopes for Williams who is taller than most offensive guards (6-foot-5), but plays with great pad level and has great feet. Williams is the heir apparent at the left guard position and will get a lot of valuable time this fall. If Huff were to go down to injury, this position probably wouldn't miss a beat.
1. Jacob Hickman - It only seems like Hickman has been in Lincoln for 10 years, but the fact of the matter is that the grey shirt for Hickman has paid huge dividends for him and shows his patience. If not for injuries in Hickman's career at Nebraska, Hickman could be one of the leading veteran's on the offensive line.
Hickman missed last spring due to injury, but played in 12 games last year, including starting nine at the offensive guard position. Hickman has always been a player that has projected to center and expect him to slide over this fall. Hickman has always been known for having great hands and the center position should be a very natural change for him. There is limited depth at center, the least of any position on the offensive line, so Hickman staying healthy is critical.
2. Mike Caputo – A walk-on from Omaha (Nebr.) Millard North, Caputo was the starting center for the red squad in the annual spring game. It is quite the honor for a walk-on, and a red shirt freshman walk-on at that, to get the nod. But, beneath the obvious is the scream of the lack of depth at the center position.
Without Andrew Christensen to potentially push for time here or at least back up Hickman, there is also Mike Smith that is also a back up at the center position. You might see a player like Ricky Henry come in and get a look at center as well as at guard. Ultimately, I don't think that Caputo would replace Hickman in injury with a game on the line, but he could really develop into a fine player, some day.
1. Matt Slauson -Slauson will anchor the right side at the guard position. Last year, Slauson was moved around when injuries took their toll on the offensive line with a start at left tackle against Kansas State and a start at right tackle against Colorado.
Slauson is versatile and that is a tribute to his overall ability. Listed at 325 this spring, which is down 10 pounds from his listed weight last season where he was actually probably closer to 345 or heavier. A leaner Slauson will help Nebraska stay healthy and allow him to be a step or two quicker on his pulls. Expect big things from Slauson this season.
2. D. J. Jones - One of the red shirt freshman to see extensive action last season, played in nine games, Jones appears to be in a position to make a larger contribution this fall. Jones is slated to start out this fall behind Slauson, but his versatility (and Slauson's for that matter) may allow Nebraska the opportunity to play either Jones or Slauson at another position along the offensive line.
Jones has been drawing a lot of rave reviews since his time on the scout team as a true freshman where he and Keith Williams really stood out two years ago. Jones is in a position to inherit the starting position at the right guard position after Slauson graduates after this fall. This season will allow Jones to take another step forward.
1. Jaivorio Burkes - Burkes got his first start of his career against Texas last season and then started against Kansas, Kansas State and Colorado down the stretch helping Nebraska put up some record, offensive numbers in a couple of those games. Burkes, simply put, showed ability that you just don't see everyday in true freshman. Burkes was also named to the first team all-freshman team by the Sporting News.
Burkes came to Nebraska considerably heavier than the weight that he played at in high school. Despite the additional weight, Burkes still moves well and that says a lot about his athleticism. Burkes may have gotten a little heavy over the winter and was asked to shed some pounds, but he is solid playing the right tackle position at the 325-pound area. Slauson and Burkes may be the heaviest and best pair of right-side offensive lineman in the nation next year.
2. Marcel Jones - When you see Marcel Jones, you think Jonathon Ogden. He has the body, the feet and the hair that Ogden has. While Ogden is that blueprint that you draw up at left tackle, Jones is a long ways away from being a finished product or being a player that Nebraska can depend on to play the position while the game still hangs in the balance.
Jones has potential. This was the same report that was given on Jones since his days in high school. Since reporting to Lincoln, it does appear that Jones has started to transform his frame that may have been better suited in high school for basketball, into being an offensive tackle at the division one level. At 310-pounds, Jones looks light and has his best days of playing football in front of him.
Overall, the position is about as close to two-deep as they have been in a long, long time. The days of calling lineman #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, etc. seem to be over, forever in Lincoln, and the Huskers will be better for it. This is a line that is deep enough to have players work exclusively at just the tackle positions, guard positions or the center and guard positions. The versatility of some of the players, namely Slauson, Jones, Burkes, Smith and potentially Ricky Henry, will allow them to see time at multiple positions and not just sides of the line. This should be the centerpiece of the Nebraska offense this season and as this line goes so will the Nebraska offense. Good thing for Nebraska, this line is good. Very, very good.
Up next…receivers and tight ends.