Convinced he could see NFL-caliber potential in Cameron Jurgens, coach Scott Frost placed a big wager in his first year at Nebraska when he unexpectedly moved the all-state tight end from Beatrice High School to center in his redshirt season, about the time he suffered a foot injury. It could be considered an audacious plan, although over the past two years, some have used even more colorful adjectives to describe it. Certainly it was bold.
Frost has made a few bold moves since he replaced Mike Riley as head coach in December 2017. Some have not worked so well. For the sake of his team and his fan base, the Jurgens move must work. Frost — like Jurgens, a small-town Nebraska football star who won a gold medal in the shot put at the state track meet — really needs that longshot bet to pay big dividends this fall.
The jury is still out. Even though Jurgens has all-conference-caliber talent, he and his batterymate Adrian Martinez are the latest in a long line of poster children for the malady that has afflicted Nebraska football for the last decade — the utter inability to get out of its own way. Last November, Jurgens was benched temporarily at Iowa City after he unleashed four bad shotgun snaps that proved fatal in a hard-fought 26-20 loss to the Hawkeyes. The following week, you could have found thousands of people who wanted Frost to bench Jurgens permanently.
It’s not surprising that Jurgens, who had never played center at any level of organized football, was inconsistent as he learned, but he was taking on-the-job training for a team that had almost no margin for error. If you’re looking to hide your mistakes, that’s the wrong environment. Most offensive line miscues ended a Nebraska drive. Each bad snap punched Husker Nation in the gut. Every holding penalty cost dearly, and sapped an already-low supply of resiliency. Fans lived and died the hazards of committing to a youth movement, right alongside the coaching staff.
Everyone has paid his dues. It’s past time to turn the page. Last year’s O-line never really showed much improvement until the season finale in the frigid stillness of Piscataway, N.J. This year, it needs to show steady game-to-game improvement, and there’s no reason it cannot.
It’s time for Nebraska to seize control in the trenches for the first time in ages. You’ve gotta start somewhere, right? This offensive line holds the future of Frost and his staff in their hands. There is not a single game to waste; the Huskers have used up their last mulligan. Starting with Game 1, the O-line must demonstrate it can and will play focused, fundamental football. If that happens, it will spread to the skill positions.
What would that look like at Illinois on Aug. 28? Frankly, it’s a real concern whether Nebraska can match up on special teams, but eventually, a clean Husker offense will move the ball well. At first, it likely won’t look like much at all, but then again, Nebraska fans will quickly recognize the beauty in what they don’t see. Here’s a concept: a bunch of boringly consistent snaps, and no more than one O-line penalty. Probably a couple of early punts, but no sacks allowed, either, and no real advantage for either team in the first 15 minutes. And here’s another vision: by mid-second quarter, Jake Hansen, the Illini’s potential all-conference linebacker, will be making a lot of tackles four and five yards downfield, and the Huskers cash in a couple of 60-yard, four-minute drives.
In the second half, Nebraska should accomplish something it has rarely been able to do in the past couple of seasons — take control of a game it has every right to win. In Champaign, the Huskers can reasonably expect to wear down a mediocre Illinois defense if they do not invite the Illini back into the game by giving the football away.
This could happen if Frost and offensive coordinator Matt Lubick stick to a conservative game plan, and if Martinez can use his big tight ends to finish a couple more times in the red zone by the end of the third quarter. That is, if the Huskers lean on an up-and-coming offensive line and watch it grow. It’s put up or shut up for Jurgens. It’s time to prove Frost’s instincts were right, after all, in the fall of 2018 after that bizarre thunderstorm canceled the Akron game and he suffered through a six-game losing streak to start his tenure in Lincoln.
It could be the beginning of redemption for Jurgens. It wouldn’t be a bad time for Ethan Piper and Bryce Benhart to start clicking, either, and I think they will if Jurgens is ready to lead the way and start mowing down linebackers.
Second-year freshman Turner Corcoran is probably the best bet outside of Jurgens to get to the second level on a regular basis this fall. You say you want Nebraska’s offense to find an identity and stick to it? Here’s an identity for you — Jurgens and Corcoran blocking downfield, with a Husker running back to emerge from the pack, start making broken-field moves and ripping off 10-yard chunks. That’s the kind of thing that sets up the passing game for success.
Frost needs to commit to the run game, scheme ways to make it easy for an emerging O-line to succeed. He and Lubick could have success if they do the opposite of what Riley did — find ways to make the run game more complex, adding toss sweeps out of the pistol to the zone read series, adding misdirection plays to keep defenses off balance, passing out of run-heavy sets and running the ball out of passing formations.
The Husker O-line is young, but not as young as it seems. They have 47 combined starts, including five players who have started at least one game. The majority are beginning at least their third year in Greg Austin’s system, and there’s not a single teenager among the top 11 in the depth chart. Think of Tanner Farmer in his third year, working his way into the starting lineup in 2016, or Dave Volk in 1999, who made honorable mention All-Big 12 that year, his third season in Lincoln. Are there budding Farmers or Volks on the Husker roster? Certainly there are. Are there any Wiegerts or Zatechkas? Too early to tell, but things are moving in the right direction.
Matt Sichterman, the lead candidate for starting right guard, is in his fifth year at Nebraska (fourth year with Austin), as are guard/backup center Trent Hixson, the Omaha Skutt product, and swing tackle Broc Bando, who played at Lincoln Southeast and the IMG Academy. Jurgens is in his fourth year. Piper (Norfolk Catholic), Benhart (Lakeville, Minn.), swing tackle Brant Banks (Houston), Michael Lynn (Greenwood Village, Colo.) and Jimmy Fritzsche (Greenville, S.C.) are in their third year under Austin. Nouredin Nouili (Frankfurt, Germany, transfer to Norris High) played one year at Colorado State and is in his second year at NU.
The main difference is that today’s Husker linemen are coming up in a system where they’ve never seen a true lead dog and how he operates, like Husker linemen of the 1970s throught the early 2000s did.
Watch this fall to see if any lead dogs emerge. I think Jurgens and Corcoran are the best candidates. Although Corcoran is in just his second year at NU, he seems mature beyond his 20 years, and ready to take a big step.
The window of opportunity is the first half of the season, and the O-line is the key to building a foundation of consistency that could completely change the atmosphere around Memorial Stadium.