Huskers’ youthful O-line, pass-focused QB battle, 3-4 defense among highlights

February 27, 2017

LINCOLN — After a series of questions about the performance of his position group last season, Nebraska offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh gives a friendly growl over the phone.

“We’ve moved past last year,” Cavanaugh said. “We’re looking ahead to spring.”

So are Nebraska fans.

The Huskers have one of their youngest and least experienced teams and, for the first time since 2013, they’ll be breaking in a new starting quarterback. For the first time since Nebraska switched to the 4-3 scheme in the 1990s, the Blackshirts will have a new base alignment on defense — the 3-4, which bears similarities to the old 5-2 scheme the Huskers used for decades.

Storylines for spring practice, which starts March 4, abound for NU coming off a 9-4 season filled with emotions surrounding the loss of a beloved native son — punter Sam Foltz — that ended with the Huskers losing four of their last six. That clunker of a closing stretch cost two longtime confidants of coach Mike Riley their jobs. Bruce Read and Mark Banker had been with Riley for more than a decade.

Cavanaugh enters his 13th straight season as Riley’s offensive line coach. His 12th season — 2016 — had its challenges.

Nebraska lost starting left guard Jerald Foster to a knee injury in August. Then each of the starting offensive linemen dealt with one injury or another during the season.

The anchor of the line, left tackle Nick Gates, didn’t miss any games, but he soldiered through a painful ankle injury. Foster even managed to return late in the season to the starting lineup.

By the time Nebraska played in the Music City Bowl against Tennessee, the Huskers’ O-line was as healthy as it had been all season and was facing a defense that had given up an average of 661 yards per game in its final three regular-season contests.

NU’s offense fell flat in a 38-24 loss. The Huskers amassed 318 total yards — 61 on the ground — and gave up a season-high four sacks. UT defensive end Derek Barnett was especially disruptive, even against Gates.

“That bowl game wasn’t very good,” Cavanaugh said. “We had problems with No. 9.”

That’s Barnett, who could be a first-round NFL draft pick. NU otherwise had a decent year pass-blocking, giving up 15 sacks. Cavanaugh said former quarterback Tommy Armstrong, and his scrambling ability, had something to do with that.

This year’s quarterback won’t have Armstrong’s wheels. But Cavanaugh is used to a more stationary pocket passer; Riley had plenty of those at Oregon State.

Pocket passers tend to benefit from a consistent running game that allows for play-calling balance and the occasional effective play-action pass.

Nebraska’s running game in 2016 generally got worse as the season progressed. NU averaged 6.6 yards per carry in a 24-13 win over Northwestern — then never again eclipsed 5 yards per carry that season.

In losses to Ohio State, Iowa and Tennessee, Nebraska outright abandoned the run — NU’s struggling defense had something to do with that — and gained 78, 90 and 61 yards, respectively. The 61 yards against Tennessee was NU’s second-lowest output of the Big Ten era. In Riley’s two seasons, Nebraska rushed for fewer than 100 yards five times; from 2011-2014, it happened twice.

Cavanaugh said he wants his line to get better at finishing blocks and improving technique, a pursuit that probably never ends.

Cavanaugh wants to look forward, not backward. He’s bullish on what the 2017 group can do. This is Year 3 of the offense. None of NU’s linemen played much in the old offense. This is what they know best.

» Cavanaugh likes what he has in Gates, Foster and right guard Tanner Farmer. All three will be junior returning starters. Cavanaugh praised Gates and Farmer for their offseason leadership.

“They’re vocal guys,” Cavanaugh said, who “aren’t afraid” to hold teammates accountable in the weight room, where offseason training continues. Gates and Foster set a good example, which is most important, Cavanaugh said, but the vocal component is a big bonus.

» Right tackle could be a battle between senior David Knevel and junior walk-on Cole Conrad, who emerged late in the season as Knevel battled injuries. Cavanaugh said he expects a good battle there. At any rate, a team needs more than two “start-ready” tackles, as the last two seasons proved.

» Cavanaugh is equally intrigued by three redshirt freshmen: tackle Matt Farniok, center John Raridon and guard Boe Wilson.

Raridon “is real athletic, tough, and he’s good at finishing blocks,” Cavanaugh said. That last piece can be the difference between a nice run and a giant gash through the middle of the defense. He’ll compete with Omaha North grad Michael Decker at center; look for both to get plenty of reps.

Wilson “is going to push those guys at guard,” Cavanaugh said. Wilson nearly played last season when Foster got hurt, but Nebraska chose to redshirt him. Now, Wilson will be in the same class as Raridon and Farniok, whom Cavanaugh likes for his toughness, strength and “nasty” in the run game. Farniok still has to come along as a pass blocker.

» Cavanaugh then looks at three sophomores: Decker, Christian Gaylord and Jalin Barnett. He’s blunt about where all three stand. He likes them. He wants to see more. He wants to see them “all in.”

“They need to get on their horse and let’s go,” Cavanaugh said. “I want to see guys do everything they’re capable of doing, not just what’s necessary.”

Decker, who backed up Dylan Utter last year, “has tools” to be a starter, Cavanaugh said.

“Athletic, strong, smart guy,” the coach said.

Barnett, a former four-star recruit, “is a straight-line guy right now,” Cavanaugh said. “He’s got to be better at moving side to side. He needs to lose weight and he needs to get all in. I believe he’s getting there.”

Cavanaugh said the scholarship numbers — NU has 17 linemen on scholarship, which doesn’t include Conrad — are closer to what he wants. One of the four scholarship signees in the 2017 class, Broc Bando, has already enrolled. He’ll begin his career at tackle. Cavanaugh is excited to see how Bando goes through drills.

That goes for the whole unit, too.

“A lot of the guys have grown up in the system,” Cavanaugh said.

Four more storylines to watch in spring:The quarterback, of courseFor the first time since 2009, Nebraska will have a pro-style passing quarterback as its full-time starter instead of a dual-threat, run-first guy. Taylor Martinez and Tommy Armstrong won a ton of games, but they also accounted for a lot of turnovers and their teams didn’t win many of the biggest games. Their record against ranked teams: 8-15.So … time to turn the page. Who’s on that page? Tanner Lee, Patrick O’Brien, walk-on Andrew Bunch and early freshman enrollee Tristan Gebbia.Teammates — current and former — talk about Lee, a Tulane transfer, like he’ll be “the dude,” and Billy Devaney, Nebraska director of player personnel, gushed on signing day about Lee to such a degree that he said Lee could be a first-round NFL draft pick. Lee, thus, carries a lot on his shoulders.O’Brien, a redshirt freshman, has a lot going for him, too, but he may need a peerless preseason to beat out Lee. Bunch is a junior college transfer who played his prep ball in Tennessee while Gebbia is expected to redshirt and gain weight. If you see more than 70,000 at Nebraska’s spring game, rest assured, a lot of them are there to see two things: quarterback and …The 3-4 defenseDefensive coordinator Bob Diaco will mold his system to the players he has, but Mike Riley hired Diaco in part because he wanted a 3-4 scheme that emphasizes linebackers and their versatility over defensive linemen. So the alignment will be different.After that, Diaco and assistants John Parrella, Trent Bray, Donte Williams and Diaco confidant Bob Elliott have to figure out which players belong where. Who plays nose tackle? Defensive end? Outside linebacker? What would a nickel or dime package look like? Diaco, known in coaching circles as a schematic expert who can make a lot of different ideas work, will have a spring to tinker and experiment with lineups.New leaders, waning of Pelini eraLet’s talk truth. The 2015 and 2016 teams — especially the 2015 bunch — borrowed as much of their mindset from the previous coach as they did Riley, who didn’t enjoy the nearly 100 percent buy-in Bo Pelini did at the start of his coaching tenure. Riley eventually molded some of his approach around what he was working with.The death of Sam Foltz brought the Huskers together in important, profound ways — those things will carry on. But with the departure of the most recent group of seniors — influential and filled with strong personalities — fans may see a big change in the vibe of the team and the players who rise to the top as leaders. Lee, who had the respect of the old guard and the new, may be a successful bridge between the two.Offensive skill positionsNebraska lost its top running back, three of its top five wideouts and its three top tight ends. Outside of receiver Stanley Morgan — and a finally fully healthy De’Mornay Pierson-El — Nebraska doesn’t have a lot of “proven” skill players.At running back, Devine Ozigbo, Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon have all had their highs and lows. NU is starting over at tight end, perhaps with walk-ons Tyler Hoppes and Connor Ketter atop the list.At wideout, Pierson-El and Morgan are the top two — but then who? Keyan Williams, son of wideouts coach Keith Williams? Redshirt freshman J.D. Spielman? Converted quarterback Zack Darlington? Walk-ons Bryan Reimers and Gabe Rahn? Incoming freshmen Jaevon McQuitty and Keyshawn Johnson Jr.? The true X-factor, Tyjon Lindsey, doesn’t arrive until summer.