So far we've gone through three units, quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, and tight ends. While there is a lot of talk surrounding the quarterback position, I don't think there's much argument about the idea that the starting quarterback job is Zac Lee's to lose come fall. The other three units haven't lost many players, so there shouldn't be a lot of difference from last year.
Now we get to the offensive line, and everything gets interesting.
Leaving: Cruz Barrett, Quentin Toailoa
Nebraska returns five linemen with a total of 74 starts between them. That's a long way ahead of where the line was last season, when the Huskers were tenth in offensive line starts amongst Big 12 teams. Experience counts for quite a bit in offensive lines as players must work as unit in order to be effective. Easy example - if the defense lines up in an unexpected formation, lineman must trust that the guy next to them knows which player to pick up. Without that trust, things break down quickly.
The biggest loss going into 2010 is center Jacob Hickman. He wasn't a world-beater (Dave Rimington ruined me forever), but he was a steady performer over the past three seasons. Walk-on Mike Caputo is the heir apparent. While he doesn't have a start, he played in six games last season and replaced Hickman in the Iowa State game due to Hickman's injury.
The key for spring is finding a backup for Caputo, or perhaps someone who can challenge him for he starting center position. Mike Smith may be that guy, already moving this spring from tackle to play either guard or center.
Ricky Henry is out for spring practice due to shoulder surgery, but that's okay. Henry worked into being a solid guard by the end of the 2009 season. It's more important for him to fully heal than it is to be involved, and in fact, may give the coaches a chance to see what other combinations work.
The Jones duo will stay at tackle. Marcel Jones started 11 games last season while D.J. Jones started against Colorado, Texas, and Arizona. Nebraska struggled at the tackle position last season. Opposing defensive ends consistently out-quicked Nebraska's tackles. Experience may help both the Jones maintain their position and both players should be much improved this season, but consider them the most vulnerable to be replaced by younger players.
Sophomores Brian Thorson and Brandon Thompson will work to get into the rotation, but they have their work cut out for them.
Nebraska has a number of redshirt freshman - Jeremiah Sirles, Nick Ash, Jesse Coffey, and Brent Qvale - vying to work themselves into the rotation this season. Qvale and Sirles are the the most likely candidates to earn heavy playing time this season.
Besides being just a bunch of beef, there is great potential in this group of players. As stated earlier, experience counts for a lot on the line, so it will be key for the coaches to work these guys into the rotation without damaging the overall quality of the unit.
We're going to hear a lot about Jermarcus Hardrick in the next couple years. Remember that line from Hardrick's JUCO coach Jeff Sims about Hardrick being the "meanest player he'd ever coached"? Sims also told me that Hardrick's ‘meanness' is infectious. He pointed out how much more physical his line became after Hardrick's arrival. Sims gives out a "pancake ball" award to the lineman with the most pancake blocks. Hardrick won it his first year, with 52. The second place guy had 17. The next season, Hardrick won it again with 67. This time the second place player had 62, with third place being 51.
Bottom line - Hardrick brings an attitude to the Husker line that they sorely need.
The 2009 recruiting class brings in Mike Moudy and Nebraska native Andrew Rodriguez. They will most likely redshirt the 2010 season.
2009 vs 2010
Is it any wonder that Cruz Barrett and Quentin Toailoa have left the team? If they didn't get much playing time last season (and they didn't), then they sure as heck weren't going to get any this year with the crop of redshirt freshman about to be unleashed.
Spring is a wonderful time for coaching. There's no pressure to win games and no opponents to scout. It's a time for offensive coaches to "play" with the linemen as well, moving them around in different combinations to see how they play together, how they react with each other.
The offensive line should see great improvement in the 2010 season. Not only are they more experienced, but there is much more overall depth. The two keys entering 2010 are replacing Hickman at center, and the offensive line developing the nasty attitude that was core to the "pipeline" units under Tom Osborne. In that regard, Hardrick may infect players this spring, aided by Henry's return in the fall.