LINCOLN — After weeks of inconsistencies with the same offensive line, Nebraska is preparing to try something different.
The lead-up to Northwestern will take on a fall-camp feel for a group that has struggled to block nearly halfway through the season. Scott Frost said Monday the Huskers will reexamine the position, specifically identifying left guard and right tackle as spots that need to improve for what will be “open competition everywhere.”
“I want to see more of an attitude,” Frost said. “More of a nasty.”
Problems along the line have manifested in many ways. The same starters against Oklahoma and Michigan State combined for 10 penalties for 70 yards — including eight false starts spread among all five linemen. Rushing lanes have been tight and brief. Michigan State became the latest to hound quarterback Adrian Martinez with constant pressure.
“We’ve got maybe the most athletic quarterback in the country and he still got sacked seven times, so there’s a lot to fix there,” Frost said. “Coach G is working hard and so am I.”
People are also reading…
Coach G is offensive line coach Greg Austin, a former Husker lineman who shook practice up Monday with new drills emphasizing striking and moving defenders at the point of attack. Frost even attended the position meeting.
O-line is the most obvious area of overhaul, but hardly the only one for Nebraska as it nears game No. 6. The special teams meeting Monday was rough but honest, Frost said, following games in which they couldn’t field punts, missed kicks and shanked punts.
Nebraska will attempt to curb the mistakes against a Northwestern club that historically thrives on letting others beat themselves. The Wildcats are “super disciplined,” NU inside linebacker Nick Henrich said. They’re a top-25 team in avoiding penalties, as they have also been two of the previous three seasons. What the defending West Division champs don’t have in recruiting star rankings they make up for with clean football.
If the Huskers shed their self-harming tendencies, it will have to happen in the meat of the schedule with seven Big Ten opponents still ahead. That can be tough.
Defensive lineman Ty Robinson said he generally doesn’t leave Memorial Stadium on weekdays until late in the evening while balancing classes. There’s enough to learn about the latest game plan without a full-on self scout.
Outside linebacker JoJo Domann said spring practices and fall camp are the times for resetting schemes and techniques. How does the system work and what should players do? Then how can they be beaten?
“It is hard to correct those things in season,” Domann said.
Nebraska’s shakeup of the offensive line will likely be more based on personnel. Ethan Piper started the first three games at left guard before giving way to Trent Hixson. Bryce Benhart has started all five contests at right tackle. Candidates to get a chance in their stead include guard Nouredin Nouili, tackle Ezra Miller, swingman Brant Banks and true freshman tackle Teddy Prochazka.
Frost referenced his own benching as Nebraska quarterback in 1997, and his benching of Martinez last year as examples of when briefly sitting out can work. Coaches also pulled center Can Jurgens for a short time last season, and he’s responded with his best showings this fall.
“That happens, that’s life,” Frost said. “If those guys bounce back, a couple of them, they’re going to be fine. You have two choices when something like that happens and I hope they pick the right choice. I think overall it’s going to make us better as a unit.”
Martinez backed his blockers — “I have faith in those guys” — and expressed confidence they'd “get right.” He’s spending more time during games with the unit to keep an open dialogue about what everyone is seeing.
Right guard Matt Sichterman said it’s clear why Frost and Martinez are more personally involved with the offensive line. The group has underperformed, plain and simple. Same goes for a special teams outfit that has been a chronic liability.
The fix for both is less obvious, with some blend of individual improvement and collective cohesiveness required.
At this point, Nebraska must arrive at the solution on the fly.
“You can’t do the same things and expect a different outcome,” Sichterman said. “We’re trying whatever we can to get this thing right and I’m happy with how our group responded today.”