The Husker offense looked exceptional early 2010, but bogged down as the season went on. Most of the blame was placed on Taylor Martinez and the injury he suffered in the Missouri game, allowing the offensive line to face the same level of scrutiny.
Yet the 2010 team suffered from the same problem seen in 2009 - as the 2010 season progressed the offensive line starters got beaten down yet the coaching staff continued playing them, apparently with the idea that their backups weren't ready to play. This despite the praise heaped on a group of redshirt freshmen the previous spring.
This should lead Husker fans to ask - were these guys not as good as advertised? Or is this a problem in getting them coached up (even by the end of the season)?
Bo Pelini may have pondered the same question at the end of the season. The 2011 recruiting class was heavy on highly ranked line recruits and two coaches were brought in to assist with line coaching.
Keith Williams, Ricky Henry, D.J. Jones
The Huskers enter 2011 spring practice looking for a pair of starting guards after losing Ricky Henry and Keith Williams. Henry gained first-team All Big 12 Honors in 2010, the first Husker offensive lineman to do so since xxx in 200x. Henry was, if nothing else, steady, starting every game the past two seasons. Williams was no slouch, finishing his career with 34 starts and being selected as All-Big12 Honorable Mention honors.
That's a lot of experience to replace.
The Huskers should be okay at the starting tackle positions, although Jeremiah Sirles is out for spring practice due to surgery. Okay? Yeah, okay. Marcel Jones didn't play a whole lot last season due to a back injury, missing the first ten games of the season. One has to hope that the problem doesn't return, otherwise we'll be back in the same position - having two guys as starters, but no one experienced into the rotation.
The most logical replacements at guard are Andrew Rodriguez and Brent Qvale. Rodriguez played in five games as backup to Williams at the left guard position, while Qvale finished the season listed as Henry's backup, yet played only sparingly throughout the 2010 season.
The offensive line needs to find a good backup for center Mike Caputo. Caputo started every game in 2010 and played well enough to earn Big 12 Honorable Mention honors last season. However, his size (small for a center - 6-1, 275) caused problems at times last season when Caputo was asked to take on much bigger (heavier) defensive tackles. That shouldn't be taken as an issue with Caputo as much as how the offense was run.
Sophomore Cole Pensick was second on the depth chart at center last season, playing in four games. Like Caputo, Pensick is a little undersized (6-2, 275), but hasn't played enough to determine a firm assessment. While there should be a certain level of respect given to the center-quarterback exchange, Pensick should be given more chances in real games if he's the back up.
Finding the Rotation
Nebraska fans want a return to the Pipeline years under Tom Osborne. Osborne's teams mashed opponents, pounding opponents into submission with a physical offense that so far has only appeared in Bo Pelini's dreams.
If the Huskers want to be successful on offense, it's imperative that more guys get into the rotation. Offensive linemen get beat up and worn down as the season goes on. The best way to avoid that - having more guys capable of playing at a high level. Why this hasn't happened under Pelini/Barney Cotton is anyone's guess.
Junior Brandon Thompson (6-6, 300) appears to be the guy who'll be part of the guard rotation. Thompson played nine games last year, but only sparingly. Most of the snaps went to Williams and Henry. That's not good and hopefully it changes this season (have I emphasized this enough?).
Walk-on junior Seung Hoon Choi played well enough to get up to third at guard on the depth chart last season. Does Choi make a move? Possibly, since football is more about hard work than sheer athletic ability. Senior Luke Lingenfelter is another possibility, as are sophomores Spencer Long and Nick Ash.
Redshirt freshman Jake Cotton moved from the defensive line to play offensive tackle this spring, giving the position more depth. Sophomore Jesse Coffey is another possibility come fall, but unfortunately is out for the spring.
I've stated one area of concern earlier - finding a good backup for Mike Caputo. Centers don't rotate as much as guards and tackles because there's a comfort level that develops with the center-quarterback exchange. Pensick established himself as the backup last season, but may be pushed by junior Brian Thorson.
The 2011 recruiting class featured some highly ranked offensive linemen. This could be a sign that the Huskers haven't yet found the level of linemen they want in the players they have - or it could simply be a move to find more depth (probably more the former, though). Out of that class, don't be surprised if Ryne Reeves sees some playing time at center.
2010 vs 2011
Entering spring, things really aren't much different than last season. Nebraska entered 2010 with tons of experience in the starting line up, but not much behind them. Funny - a year later, and here we are again, looking at replacing two key players who played most of the snaps last season, wondering about who's behind them after a season in which the offense played well enough to get to a conference championship game, but ultimately failed when it counted most.
That has to change. The move to the Big Ten will provide a new beginning, as well the move to Tim Beck as offensive coordinator. Clearly there's a new emphasis on the offensive line with John Garrison formally joining the staff to assist Barney Cotton as line coach.
Former Husker great Brenden Stai has joined the staff as a graduate assistant. Stai earned All-American honors in 1994 as the starting guard on a national championship team and spent seven years in the NFL.
The Cotton-Garrison-Stai combination should be full capable of restoring Nebraska's line to it's former greatness.