Friday, February 6, 2009

2009 Nebraska football position outlook: Offensive Line

One story in a Wine Country Husker series, looking at position breakdowns for the Nebraska Cornhuskers for the 2009 season. Today, we look at offensive line:

Looking back: The Huskers entered the 2008 season looking to become a more physical team. No other position embodied that desire more, on the offensive side, than the line.

The Huskers used to keep track of pancake blocks as if they were going for a short stack at Denny’s. In recent years, however, the Nebraska line lost its edge and identity of being more physical than its opponents at the line of scrimmage.

The Huskers hoped the return of Barney Cotton as the offensive line coach would help re-instill a physical mindset. Cotton played on Nebraska’s O-Line from 1975-1978 and was a member of the Husker coaching staff in 2003 but was not retained by Bill Callahan when hired in 2004 to replace Frank Solich. When Bo Pelini, who was the Husker defensive coordinator in 2003 and later interim head coach, was hired to replace Callahan, he immediately brought Cotton aboard.

Cotton took his share of criticism from Nebraska fans but it should be noted that he had to coach players out of bad habits and re-instill a philosophy of being physical that takes time to develop. The Husker coaching staff also had to spend time simplifying the playbook as well.

To their credit, the Nebraska offensive linemen showed the ability to perform well once they found their strength. In a nutshell, the line took care of business against inferior front sevens and struggled against the superior ones, which was already a step in the right direction over recent years past.

Looking ahead: The biggest losses of note will be Lydon Murtha at tackle and Mike Huff and Matt Slauson at guard from the two-deep. All three players battled through their share of injuries and adversity. Murtha, however, was frequently hurt and Slauson, while solid, is replaceable.

This Husker line won’t make us forget guys like the 1994 Pipeline but this version is well-stocked with depth.

From center-to-left tackle, there’s a solid nucleus with Jacob Hickman, Keith Williams and Mike Smith. Then there’s Javoirio Burkes and Marcel Jones. The coaching staff is high on Ricky Henry, Marcel Jones Brandon Thompson and Mike Caputo. Henry redshirted his freshman year but is particularly noted for his tenacity.

The Huskers will need the offensive line to perform well right away. The good news is that there is a strong stable of running backs led by Roy Helu and Quentin Castille. The bad news is that the quarterback spot will feature inexperience at the Div. I-A level with most likely either Zac Lee or Patrick Witt.

The good news is also that Smith, Williams, Hickman, DJ, Burkes have started games. The line play should also be better in that their play will be more instinctive in Cotton’s second season.

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