This is going to be a real fun one. Because no one has any clue what is going on. I can tell you that our defensive line is obliterating our offensive line currently, but it goes back to what i’ve always said is so tough… is our DL just awesome everywhere, or is our OL that bad? I do not think our OL is that bad, but I do have some concerns. How big should our concerns be?
First, this has a real 2020 season feel for me here. Remember, we lost two draft picks on the defensive line from 2019, and everyone said we will be better losing them. While I do think we improved defensively, i’m not sure it’s a coincidence we finished with one of our worst division finishes this century. Further, when we lost to Ohio State by our widest margin with this staff, we had people saying “ya but we just looked better along the lines and more physical.” In 2019, our defensive line accounted for 13.5 sacks, 12 of which were by our draft picks that year (Carlos and Khalil Davis). We only had 2.5 total sacks all of 2020 from our DL. I bring this up because we are hearing the same thing about our OL this year. “Ya, we lost two draft picks, but overall we will be a much better group!”
I just have a hard time getting there. In 2020 we had the most starts along the OL in conference compared to our opponents with something over 130 career starts. For 2021 we return 35 starts. That’s a huge drop off. If you are on some other message boards, you see them touting how we had minimal career starts for our skill players against Illinois. McCaffrey, Scott III, Warner, etc. If it was an issue for the loss, will minimal career starts for the OL be an issue this time around?
With that said, I have a hard time getting too upset about the OL situation, because I don’t feel we played to their strengths at all. And our offense as a whole has really underperformed the last 3 years. If you remember, I stated there was a bit of frustration from Austin because he thought we should be running north/south more. Austin was made running game coordinator in an effort to help those woes, but it still didn’t work. As much as I hate to say it, our strength program just did not make guys good in space, and that was extremely evident along the OL. If we are getting the ball to Mo Washington, Wandale Robinson, jet sweeps to Betts in space, your OL better be able to perform there. If you go read this article about what NFL scouts told both of our OL draft picks, they told them to get more flexible, lose weight, and lean out. Don’t worry about getting bigger which we put a priority on in Lincoln.
With Jurgens and Piper it doesn’t get much better than their athleticism on the line. With that said, they are our two shortest guys. It’s not much of a coincidence IMO but let’s not go there. So the real key will be if Corcoran, Banks, Sichterman, and Benhart can look the part. All of those guys aren’t bad in some aspects, but have struggled against a pass rush. Again, i’m fine with our S/C putting on weight, but us putting a premium on it has NFL scouts telling our guys to lean up and get more athletic when they are getting ready for the draft. I’ve harped on this before, but NFL scouts saying it publicly pretty much drives my point home i’ve been trying to make since 2018.
So let’s get to what we do have. While I didn’t agree with starting Jurgens right away when he wasn’t ready in 2019, he’s our most seasoned player now, and he’s going to be a good one (if the snaps are right). If you listened to one of the most recent podcasts, Jurgens said he only had a few practices at center before starting. (people wonder why the chemistry was off when a guy practiced all spring and fall and gets overtaken in a few practices, doesn’t sit well in the room). Bryce Benhart will man the right tackle spot, and Turner Corcoran once healthy will man the other tackle spot. That leaves us trying to find our interior players. If any of you followed my stuff before, I told you that our development wouldn’t be determined by those four star players I just mentioned, it would be how we develop our 2019 OL class. Matthew Anderson, Brant Banks, Jimmy Fritzsche, Ethan Piper, and Michael Lynn were all brought in with the correct height that our staff wanted (they made an exception for Piper). Piper as you may have heard me say before, if he doesn’t start multiple years for us, something went wrong. He started 7 for us last year, but what I will say is he regressed a bit on his end towards the latter part of the season. I’m hoping he gets back to his refreshed form.
For the last guard spot, we have Trent Hixson, Matt Sichterman, Brant Banks, Broc Bando, and Nouredin Nouili as probably your 5 vying for time right now besides them. I would give the leg up to Sichterman for the other guard spot. But a guy like Hixson has starting experience at guard as well. Bando, Banks, and Nouili are three guys that the staff is trying at guard and tackle to figure out where their best spot is, and also what to do if Corcoran isn’t ready for game 1.
But back to our offense. We need to figure out if we are going to be a downhill don’t worry so much about the numbers team, or if we are going to do what we normally do. Getting rid of Robinson for Toure and saying “this lets us be more who we want to be” makes me think we are going to be more smashmouth, because as good as Wandale was, he can’t block. But the quote from Lubick about having guys like Toure in the slot putting defenses in stress because if they put a bigger guy on him we beat him with a pass, and if the defense puts a smaller guy on him to cover, we run…. well that’s basically the exact thing we said with Wandale. If they put a really small guy on Wandale to cover him, we are running the ball. If Wandale gets a bigger guy, we love that matchup and are throwing to him.
We just need to create an identity. If any of you read the anonymous B1G coaches survey from Athlon, more than one person has stated we aren’t Oregon or UCF and have no identity. I suppose starting multiple QBs during that time can help make that happen. But if we are smart against Illinois, we run the ball heavy right at them. Wear them down. While we don’t have 11 guys that can play on the OL like Matt Campbell said he does at Iowa State, I do think we have 7-9. Now… are they all going to be able to get it done, TBD, but we do at least have some depth now.
I can be as excited as I want about all the new toys like Manning possibly playing, or Stepp transferring in, etc. But it all starts up front. If lack of experience mattered for us at the skill positions in 2020, will it matter on the OL in 2021?