Among the most interesting position battles to watch as Nebraska progresses through spring ball are for a pair of openings on the interior offensive line.
If Monday is any indication, those spots have a chance to lean heavily on in-state talent.
Let’s get the standard laundry list of caveats out of the way right off the bat. Primary among them: It’s March. The Red-White Spring Game is still more than one month out and the season opener is more than five. Stuff changes. Injuries happen. At least four more scholarship offensive linemen and a host of walk-ons will join the program this summer.
On Monday, though, the Huskers featured their trio of returning starters — left tackle Brenden Jaimes, right guard Boe Wilson and right tackle Matt Farniok — and then a pair of Nebraskans in sophomore walk-on Trent Hixson at left guard and redshirt freshman Cameron Jurgens at center.
Next up at center: Another in-state walk-on in sophomore Hunter Miller.
Center appears to be a three-man race between Jurgens, Miller and redshirt freshman Will Farniok. Last week, offensive line coach Greg Austin threw in redshirt freshman walk-on AJ Forbes, too.
“It’s going to be a battle between I think three guys,” Jaimes said, referring to the first three. “So each one of them, they’re working hard and doing everything they can to get on the field. Whoever’s in there, they know what they’re doing. Whoever gets that spot deserves it and whoever’s behind them, they need to be ready.”
Jurgens, a converted tight end, got the first turns during the 30 minutes open to reporters on Monday. The 6-foot-3 Beatrice native got up to 286 pounds this winter, head coach Scott Frost said recently. NU is being cautious as Jurgens returns from a broken foot. He worked in full pads and without extra padding or protection on Monday, though reporters did not see much live action.
“He’s doing good,” Jaimes said of Jurgens. “He’s been over here for a couple of months now, everybody loves him, he’s gained a lot of weight. He’s super strong and he’s quick. Everything you look for in an offensive lineman. He’s just got to learn the plays down and the little techniques.”
Through four practices, Austin is encouraged by what he’s seen from the young group in the middle.
“Guys are battling their butts off and trying to man down that spot,” he said. “We’re evaluating every single rep, from walk-throughs to team reps. All the guys are locked in and they know what expectation is. They know what the job is. They know what the procedure is. The best guy will win it.”
Hixson seems to have created some early separation at guard. Austin raved about his approach last week, calling the Omaha Skutt graduate, “dependable,” “extremely coachable,” “no nonsense” and “the ultimate team player,” among other platitudes.
Austin said Hixson (6-4, 300) spent most of the first week at right guard and then flipped over to the left this week.
“Technically, he’s getting better at all the things; set lines and his run blocking,” Austin said. “He’s a guy that mindset-wise, he’s going to try to whoop the guy across the way from him. He’s a better run-blocker right now than a pass-blocker, but putting his hat on guys, tight strikes and bringing his feet with him, those are things that he has that come natural and we noticed early on with him. Now it’s grooming him as a pass protector.”
If you’re going to be on a steep learning curve, though, it helps to have the right mentality. It’s not exactly, “fake it ‘til you make it,” but more maybe more like, “brawl until you’ve refined.”
“He plays with his hair on fire,” Austin said. “There’s always going to be technique things that you’re working on. Always. The hardest thing to coach is effort. Really, it’s like speed. You can’t make a 4.2 guy out of a 4.9 guy. I can’t make a guy play with way, way, way more effort than he normally plays with. Now, I can stay on his ass about being consistent and his technique needs to be consistent and all that stuff.
“But, generally speaking, if you get a guy that plays with high effort and high intensity, then you’re half of the way there.”