Don’t be fooled by highlights folks. Sportscenter and Youtube would have you convinced that ball games are won exclusively by galloping WRs, thoroughbred RBs and the Peyton Mannings of the world. Its a sexy way to sell the game and wrap it up into a palatable package. Its easy to get lost in this type of thinking. In this shuffle the offensive and defensive lines get lost. Lineman are the very foundation of success. Games, and seasons, are won and lost with the action at the line of scrimmage. There is no way to scheme around getting your ass kicked up front. This fact hits particularly close to home with the dawn of the 2016 season for our beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers. These boys are extremely inexperienced on both sides of the ball. There is talent, but getting that potential to perform on Saturday is one of the most substantial questions that this team will be forced to answer in this upcoming campaign.
There are few known commodities on the offensive line to start the 2016 season. Even returning T Nick Gates is just a true sophomore. While he showed the ability to be a competent player in this league, improvement is necessary. Dylan Utter started at Guard last year and had his moments, but even he is a question mark playing a new position. Moving from Guard to Center is a much bigger jump than one would think. Utter will now be responsible for the various adjustments made at the line of scrimmage. This is an important responsibility. It makes the difference between a great play, and getting your QB smashed. Beyond Utter and Gates the rest of the line is incredibly inexperienced. Tanner Farmer, Jerald Foster and David Knevel are the other projected starters. Those three have exactly zero experience. Still, each of them brings something to the table. Farmer brings brute strength, Knevel an impressive frame and Foster a bulldog mentality. Regardless, these three have to prove themselves. The task of getting them game ready falls upon OL coach Mike Cavanaugh. This offense will go absolutely nowhere if this group sucks. This line must open holes and protect Tommy Armstrong. They must ultimately be better than the inconsistent line that NU rolled out last year. Cavanaugh, in his 2nd year, has a tall order ahead of him. He has received glowing reviews from Husker royalty Milt Tenopir and Brendan Stai. It’s time he earns it. This unit will be a direct reflection of his coaching acumen. There is potential, but Cavanaugh must mold them into a cohesive, productive group. Otherwise, this offense goes nowhere and this season goes in the toilet.
The Defensive Line is in a considerably better place, but it’s far from ideal. The loss of 4 underclassmen from 2015 really hurts. Maleik Collins and Vincent Valentine both went to the NFL, to the shock of no one. Greg McMullen decided to pursue other interests, and all-time whiner Kevin Williams transferred. Even with all of these players NU was toward of the bottom of the league in sacks in Big 10 play. 2016 will bring the return of Freedom Akinmoladun, a sophomore who flashed speed off the edge, and Ross Dzuris, who led the team in tackles for loss. Projected starter Kevin Maurice is another valuable piece. Like the offense, there is inexperience aplenty with this unit. There will be no fewer than three, and probably more like five, defensive lineman who will see substantial playing time, who at this point have limited experience. Super stud twins Carlos and Khalil Davis, as well as Peyton Newell, DaiShon Neal and Mick Stoltenburg are some of the names you will be hearing this fall. The difference between the offense’s dilemma and the one the defensive line has is simple. A team needs greater depth on the defensive line in order to rotate fresh bodies. This means first year coach John Parella will have to work some magic with these young pups. There is no time for a learning curve. If NU cant generate a consistent pass rush, like last fall, and also struggles to shed blocks, this team could be in some serious trouble. Even with the inexperience, this group must somehow get better production for NU to compete for a division title.
The situation along the lines could be considerably worse. There could be no talented players waiting in the wings. That’s not the case here. The horses are in the barn. It’s a matter of developing those players into productive units to help this team achieve its goals. Every team in college football faces the challenge of replacing key parts of their team. At minimum the Huskers possess a number of players with massive potential. In July, all potential means is that they haven’t done anything yet. That’s fair. Until we see it on the field this fall, both of these units are massive question marks that could undermine the success of this club. Piss poor line play on either side will send this season into a tail spin. Getting these units up to speed and ready for conference play is one of the biggest questions this team faces. If properly addressed, this team could be in for a fantastic fall. If not, it could be ugly.