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Nebraska offensive line coach Greg Austin has a good idea who his starting blockers will be in three weeks for the season opener at Ohio State. Still, the practices until then are critical as the Huskers learn who they can count on in the trenches.
Austin was straightforward about what his first five looks like two days into the full-contact portion of the abbreviated fall camp. They are, from left to right: senior Brenden Jaimes, senior Boe Wilson, sophomore Cameron Jurgens, senior Matt Farniok and redshirt freshman Bryce Benhart.
That lineup is hardly a surprise — all but Benhart started every game last year and coaches had already indicated they planned to move Farniok from right tackle to right guard, making room for the up-and-coming Benhart.
But the next few weeks will be “ultra important” as NU hammers down its depth chart behind those five, Austin said. With the team transitioning to full pads Wednesday, now is the time to evaluate the physical part of everyone’s game.
“How much depth can you build?” Austin said. “It’s about depth.”
That’s especially true in a season in which a positive test for COVID-19 will keep a player out for at least 21 days and Big Ten teams will attempt to play nine games in nine weeks.
Position flexibility is key, Austin said. Junior Trent Hixson — a 12-game starter at left guard last year — is a backup at center and right guard. Ditto for Matt Sichterman at right guard and right tackle. Sixth-year senior Christian Gaylord and redshirt freshman Brant Banks are both working at right and left tackle.
Meanwhile, true freshman Turner Corcoran has “emerged” to No. 2 at left tackle and is free of redshirt consideration with the blanket eligibility waiver the NCAA granted this season. Broc Bando is second at left guard, with Colorado State transfer Nouredin Nouili close behind. Redshirt freshman Ethan Piper is in the mix for the No. 2 job at right guard, while sophomore Will Farniok is also working at center.
“We’re placing a big emphasis on guys being able to play on both sides (of the line),” Austin said.
Austin told The World-Herald in June and said again Thursday that he expects the line’s biggest improvement to come at center, where Jurgens endured a trial by fire in the early portion of last season. Now his “command presence” — his ability to confidently and quickly call out blocking assignments as the quarterback of the line — is “180 degrees” from fall camp a year ago.
Jurgens, a Beatrice graduate who came to Nebraska as a tight end, said a leg injury put him behind to start 2019 because he couldn’t physically take the practice reps he was trying to simulate mentally. He said he felt hurried making calls and didn’t diagnose defenses clearly.
“As I keep progressing, the game has slowed down a little bit more,” Jurgens said. “At the start of the season, I feel like I was just way too rushed. I was getting sped up, I wasn’t seeing things as well as I am now.”
Said offensive coordinator Matt Lubick: “You get really good with experience. Last year was (Jurgens’) first year being center. He’s going to be a ton better there just from the mental standpoint.”
Nebraska has 17 scholarship offensive linemen this season. Six of those are 2019 recruits who redshirted last year: Matthew Anderson, Jimmy Fritzsche, Michael Lynn, Banks, Piper and Benhart.