LINCOLN — It can be a lonely feeling for an offensive tackle just before a third-down snap when the defensive end, likely chirping because his quickness and agility are about to be showcased, lines up inches away.
One-on-one. With no help. And the realization sets in that any slip-up likely will lead to a sack or a major momentum shift.
That’s the mental roadblock that handcuffed Nebraska’s offensive tackles at times last season, which is why they’ve spent the spring relearning the most basic elements of their technique. They’d like to be so fundamentally sound that they’re able to remain confident this fall, despite the pressure and the menacing D-end.
“It’s being able to not get flustered and being able to sit in there, relax and trust your technique,” senior Brett Qvale said.
Sounds simple, especially since Qvale and two other seniors (Jeremiah Sirles and Andrew Rodriguez) are back after gaining experience sharing time in 2012. But they know how easy it was last season for self-doubt to take over.
The Huskers allowed a sack every 10.8 pass attempts last season — only 18 other teams recorded a rate worse than that.
Of the opponents’ 35 sacks, 16 came on third down. Quarterback Taylor Martinez’s mobility masked a portion of the issue, though Nebraska converted 23.4 percent of its third downs when needing 8 yards or more.
Opposing defenses tried to disguise their pressure packages. But it was often the standard four-man pass rush, with a couple of D-ends screaming off the edges, that gave Nebraska’s offensive line the most problems, assistant John Garrison said.
And quite often, the mistakes related most to the Huskers’ state of mind, Garrison said.
“You see guys maybe get beat on something — not even give up a sack, but give up a move — and all of a sudden you can see some doubt creep in,” Garrison said. “Because the next time, they get away from their technique.”
So Garrison has tried new ways of teaching this spring. They’ve talked strategy — how to counter specific D-end moves. They’ve followed that up by taking “lots” of reps, Qvale said.
And it’s not just the offensive tackles. The interior guys have a responsibility, too, senior Cole Pensick said.
“We’re the depth. If we get pushed back, well, then the quarterback doesn’t have anywhere to step up,” said Pensick, who’s working at center and guard. “We’ve all got to be on the same page, working together.”
The coaches are experimenting with different ways to help out as well, Garrison said. Perhaps the I-back and tight ends can be more involved in pass protection.
If the O-line can run-block as well as last year — NU ranked eighth nationally in rushing yards — it might be able to limit the pass-only situations, when defensive linemen get to fire off the line of scrimmage with a one-track mind.
“We want to be successful on first and second down, but it’s inevitable. It’s going to happen when you play good teams, good defenses,” Garrison said. “The attitude we’ve got to have is, we can’t keep doing what we’re doing.”
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