Whereas the Nebraska Cornhuskers defense epitomizes reliability and consistency on a yearly basis, the offense is always something of a mystery from one season to the next.
Much of the team’s offensive ups and downs can be attributed to head coach Bo Pelini’s undeniably better eye for one side of the ball (defense) than the other (offense), and the shortcomings of the now-former offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. Those two major factors mixed in with smaller things like Taylor Martinez’s growing pains, the offense’s inability to hold on to the ball, and untimely injuries all factored into why the defense often had to overcompensate for a lack of Husker offensive production.
This year, though, Nebraska is expected to have worked out the kinks.
As always, the offensive line is where the story can begin and end for any football team – and the Huskers are no exception. On paper Nebraska boasts an impressive lineup featuring Jeremiah Sirles, Andrew Rodriguez, Mike Caputo, Brent Qvale and Marcel Jones. The line is massive in size with four out of five coming in at a minimum of 320 pounds. That size, coupled with their athleticism, should mean the Huskers will have adequate protection for the likes of Martinez and other skill players.
But that's in theory. The bad news here, however, is that the injury bug has already bitten the Husker offensive line. As Sam McKewon of Big Red Today eloquently noted a mere three days ago: “Last Monday, about 1,500 pounds of Nebraska offensive linemen weren't practicing. They watched position coaches Barney Cotton and John Garrison bark away at their teammates barreling through a metal contraption.”
Ouch. That's almost one ton of Husker bulk not playing.
Now, to be fair, the major pieces are already either back or on their way back. Qvale and Jones returned to practice earlier in the week, and Sirles is also slated to make his return soon. What is worrisome, though, is that offensive line injuries have hindered the Nebraska offense for two straight years now, and injuries this early in the proceedings don’t exude much in the way of confidence.
The offensive line’s knack for getting hurt has serious ramifications for the rest of the offense, all the way down the line. Even though starting quarterback Martinez is said to be back at full health and ready to take on the Big Ten with fervor, it remains to be seen how successful he can be if he doesn’t have that adequate protection up front. On one hand, his dual-threat nature means he can elude defenses and compensate for offensive line flaws in a more efficient fashion than his less mobile counterparts. But, on the other hand, you're asking for trouble if you go into games counting on your quarterback to constantly scramble.
If there are line breakdowns, that also impacts the likes of running back Rex Burkhead and No. 1 wide receiver, Brandon Kinnie. With the offensive line unable to protect -- be it because of rampant injuries or a lack of chemistry resulting from too few reps together -- Burkhead will be unable to do damage via the ground game and Kinnie won’t get as many timely passes from Martinez.
The Huskers offense has the potential to surprise a lot of people, but it depends almost entirely on the offensive line. If the offensive line can get healthy in the near future and stay that way, look for breakout years from Martinez and Burkhead. If, however, we get a repeat performance of the oft-hurt bunch that was on display in bursts during 2010, things can potentially get very, very dicey.