There is much to keep an eye on as winter conditioning slides into spring practice and then to the Red -White scrimmage in April. A new crop of freshmen commits didn’t create much buzz among Husker fans, except to push the anxiety meter up after a dreadful 3-9 season. The group lacked numbers and stars and seemed to be a step down from previous recruiting classes.
This was followed by a class of portal transfers that got the attention of fans and media alike. The transfers included two quarterbacks, Casey Thompson, a former starter from Texas, and Chubba Purdy, from Florida State. Trey Palmer, a proven SEC wide out, came from LSU. Junior college running back Anthony Grant appears to be ready to contend for carries in a pretty talented running backs room.
Before the kids started showing up, Head Coach Scott Frost also brought in a bunch of grown ups to lead an offense that has been inconsistent and mistake-prone. Much has been written about the new players and coaches and much more will be written as the winter turns to spring.
The ability of the players to mesh and contribute in the new offense may be the most important factor in the success of the retooled Husker offense. This is perhaps most true as it applies to Donovan Raiola’s offensive line in Mark Whipple’s new offense.
Mark Whipple has been around football, at the college and pro level, for a long time. Do a Google search and you can find information to proves that he is the PERFECT guy to come in and turn this used air-sickness bag of an offense around. You can also find proof that this is the absolute worst personnel choice anyone around NU football has made EVER.
It’s more likely that we are in a genuine wait-and-see situation. Whipple’s offense is most likely to be a “pass first” offense. An article from when Whipple arrived at Pitt from U Mass in 2019 discussed the fact that Panther fans might be upset that Whipple’s offense wouldn’t run the ball enough.
If that was a concern at Pitt, how much more likely is it to be a hard sell at Nebraska, given our history as a traditional rushing powerhouse? Fans have pointed to the lack of a consistent, effective rushing attack as being a main cause for the sustained decline in the quality of the product NU has put on the field in recent memory.
A look at the offenses Whipple ran at Pitt shows a slight edge toward the passing game. Kenny Pickett and the Panther offense averaged about 40 passes and 25 to 30 running plays per game last season. Last season, Whipple’s third at Pitt, the Panthers averaged 350.2 yards per game passing and 152.6 rushing.
This may meld well with Frost’s offensive preferences. It has been clear from the beginning that Frost was not going to bring back the power rushing option attack that was the trademark of the Husker football glory days, the offense he ran as quarterback in 1997.
Frost has preferred the spread offense, which, generally speaking, is primarily a pass first, and use the pass to set up the run, philosophy. Whipple may be the right guy, and his system, adjusted to Frost’s preferences, may be perfect to revamp an offense that has moved well between the 20’s but struggled to score points.
Raiola is the most unknown variable on the entire coaching staff. His name gives him a sort of pedigree with the Huskers. His brother, Dominic, was a legendary figure at center for the Huskers from 1998-2000. Except for a one-season stint at Aurora University, this is Donovan’s first shot as the primary position coach, at any level.
The past four seasons he has been an assistant offensive line coach with the Chicago Bears. The Bears line gave up 58 sacks last year, the most in the NFL, and the team wound up firing head coach Matt Nagy after a 6-11 season in 2021. Frost interviewed Raiola on December 3, liked what he heard, and decided to take a chance and bring in an unproven coach to try to turn around an inconsistent, undisciplined unit that often infuriated fans.
The offensive line is young, with only two returning seniors, Broc Bando and Trent Hixson, neither of whom have significant starting experience. There are three juniors, including transfer Hunter Anthony from Oklahoma State and former Omaha North and Northern Colorado transfer Kevin Williams.
A training table full of underclassmen return, including turnstile tackles Bryce Benhart, Turner Corcoran, and Teddy Prochazka, who showed promise before a season-ending injury in the Michigan game. Replacing Cam Jurgens at center will be a major challenge. Jurgens opted for the NFL draft after finally managing to get the snap back to quarterback Adrian Martinez, more-or-less reliably, and earning third-team All Big Ten honors in 2021.
The lynchpin to turning the NU offense around in 2022 may be the contribution Raiola’s new, young offensive line is able to make in Mark Whipple’s new offense. Significant upgrades in talent at the skill positions, and they do appear to be significant, will not matter if the line can’t protect Casey Thompson, or Chubba Purdy, or Logan Smothers, or whoever starts at quarterback.
If the line can’t create running lanes it wont matter if it’s Anthony Grant, or Jaquez Yant or in-coming freshman Emmett Johnson. It may not be an overstatement to say that the play of the offensive line is the most critical thing to watch this coming season.
What Scott Frost has brought together let no mistake prone emotionally fragile offensive line put asunder. Hopefully, this union will finally aspire to be the offense that the rest of the Big Ten will have to adjust to as Frost predicted when he was hired.
If so, it may not be too late for a long-overdue honeymoon in Lincoln.