When John Garrison returned to Nebraska as a coaching intern six years ago, he noticed a few things about the Huskers’ offensive linemen.
They were big. They were talented.
And they hardly ever did things together.
That shocked Garrison, who’d started at center for Nebraska in 2001 and 2002 under longtime line coach Milt Tenopir. O-linemen had always hung out together in his day. So Garrison took it upon himself to tell the linemen to get together on nights off. Grill some burgers. Bring along the true freshmen.
Now, he said, NU’s offensive linemen do something together every Thursday night.
“Everybody talks about an offensive line jelling,” Garrison, NU’s line coach, said Friday in Omaha at the Big Red Breakfast. “An offensive line that hangs out together, they’re going to play more as a unit. And I truly believe that’s been a big part of it.”
The Huskers’ veteran line paved the way for 335 rushing yards on 50 carries last week in a 39-19 thumping of Illinois, helping the Huskers rise to ninth nationally in rushing with 291.6 yards a game.
It represented major progress for the NU running game, which had produced just 128 yards in 42 carries in a 41-21 loss to UCLA on Sept. 14.
If coaches had to do it over again, would they run right at the Bruins more?
“Hindsight’s 20/20,” Garrison said after the breakfast. “I wish we’d run the ball more. But when we had the opportunities to run, we were getting 3 yards.”
Garrison did notice that on straight handoff plays, the Huskers averaged 5 yards a carry against the Bruins. It was on plays like the zone read that the Huskers bogged down.
In games since then, another type of option play — the traditional wide option — has become a weapon in the hands of redshirt freshman quarterback Tommy Armstrong. The option produced a 43-yard touchdown run by Ameer Abdullah against Illinois.
“It’s great to see the option. Anybody else excited about that?” Garrison asked the crowd of about 190 at the Ramada Plaza Hotel and Convention Center. “Getting Tommy back there brings a different piece to the puzzle for us.”
It’s the option, Garrison said, that allowed vintage Husker teams to run the ball even against defenses loaded up to stop the run. If NU had seven blockers and faced eight defenders near the line, the quarterback would read the unblocked defender and either keep or pitch.
And if the defense crowded the line with nine players, the quarterback could fake the option and throw downfield.
“There’s something about the option,” Garrison said, “that gives you big-play opportunities.”
There might be big-play opportunities in Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at Purdue, but Garrison suggested that simply lining up and pounding the Boilermakers won’t be easy. He said their defensive front seven is “a top Big Ten unit.”
But Purdue takes a 1-4 record into the game and was gashed for 388 rushing yards in a 41-10 loss to Wisconsin.
“If you never looked at any of the records and just looked at defensive clips, you’d think, ‘Boy, this is a good defense,’ ” Garrison said. “I think their front seven is really good.”
As for defensive backs, Garrison said Purdue has “probably the hardest-hitting safeties we’ll see.”
“These guys will come up and lay the wood on you,” he said. “Now in doing that, they’ll also come up and miss you. But there will be some big-time hits. Guys have got to be able to protect the ball.”
Other comments from Garrison at the breakfast:
Ľ Senior right tackle Andrew Rodriguez has made major progress and is attracting interest from NFL scouts. But “he’s only scratched the surface of what he could be. Probably the biggest mistake we made was not redshirting the kid.”
Ľ David Knevel, a 6-foot-9, 305-pound freshman lineman from Ontario, “is going to be a superstar. One of the first things he said to me was, ‘Coach, I’ve never lifted weights before.’ I said great. A guy that’s unpolished like that, that’s the guy I want to work with.”
Ľ Junior left guard Jake Cotton is a force in the running game. And he’s made progress on the techniques of pass blocking — and in getting into the proper mindset. Garrison’s advice to Cotton on passing downs: Think of elevator music, not Metallica. “He wants to kill the guy every time. And it takes him out of position.”
Ľ Junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo from Fresno (Calif.) City College is practicing at times with the No. 1 unit at guard. But coaches hope to redshirt him.
Ľ Sophomore Zach Sterup out of Hastings St. Cecilia was close to joining three seniors in NU’s regular rotation at tackle until some pass blocking issues surfaced late in preseason practice. “I think he’s really close. If we can play four tackles, we’re going to play four tackles. The experience part is going to be huge for us.”
Ľ Sophomore Givens Price has “really flourished the last couple of weeks” and would step in at right guard if All-Big Ten senior Spencer Long were injured. The 6-4, 295-pound Price “looks like one of those Under Armour models. He’s a rocked-up guy.” But he wasn’t even 17 when he joined the Huskers in 2011. “He just started watching rated-R movies in the theater last year.”