LINCOLN — After the Gator Bowl, Brent Qvale was heading for the Nebraska team bus one last time, lagging a few minutes behind some younger Husker offensive linemen who weren't sidetracked by interview requests or simply didn't play in the 24-19 win over Georgia.
That torch is about to be passed to those non-seniors, and Qvale and the veterans seemed at peace with the inevitable.
“All those guys, it's their turn now,” Qvale said. “That's what happens in college football. People leave and then it's time for new people to step up.”
No position group will be hit harder by graduation than the NU offensive line, which started the season with five seniors among its top eight and squeezed as much mileage out of them as it could under the limitations of injury.
But the tight-knit group of Jeremiah Sirles, Spencer Long, Andrew Rodriguez, Cole Pensick and Qvale believes it has left behind a good blueprint for the non-seniors to follow as it heads out the door.
“I think what we showed them is that, as a unit, we have the most guys on the field at any time and we can lead this team,” Pensick said. “And to do it, it's just come to practice and come to games with the same tenacity and the same attitude that — no matter what happens, what gets thrown our way — we just keep working.”
Five years ago, Nebraska might not have been able to withstand such a thinning of the ranks. The five checking out played a combined 215 games, including 127 starts. Long was a second-team All-American in 2012 and Sirles a four-year starter.
But the cupboard has slowly been restocked during the Bo Pelini era, and a handful of backups got unexpected calls as the 2013 injuries started piling up once the Big Ten season started.
“Some guys stepped up who at the beginning of the year weren't really expected to play much, like (Zach) Sterup and (Ryne) Reeves, and did a great job when we needed them,” Qvale said. “So that set the stage. Mark Pelini stepped in and did a nice job this year. Jake Cotton has a year under his belt now of being the full-time guy.
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“Now we just need younger guys to step up, guys like Matt Finnin, David Knevel, Chongo (Kondolo) ... people like that.”
Cotton was the only non-senior starting when the season began. He rotated at left guard with fellow junior Mike Moudy. Moudy then replaced Long at right guard before following with an injury of his own.
Pelini became more important at center when Pensick was banged up or was needed at guard. Reeves saw time at guard as Cotton joined Moudy and Long with injuries. Sterup took some key snaps at tackle when Sirles and Qvale were hobbled.
“We have tremendous depth, and I think it showed this year with the injuries we did have,” Pensick said. “It just showed that all these young guys were ready to get out there and play, and they weren't going to just sit back and use these seniors as a comfort level.”
Then there are those who didn't play much or at all.
Losing three tackles will create opportunities for Finnin, Knevel and maybe Givens Price. Paul Thurston or Kondolo will need to emerge as a No. 2 at center. Price and Kondolo also could help at guard.
Cotton and Pelini will be looked at as the potential leaders.
“We're going to have a little less experience in the offensive line next year, but I feel like being in the rotation for some games this year that these guys are ready,” NU quarterback Tommy Armstrong said. “It's going to be great, because we've got so many guys returning.”
It also is worth watching the status of former Colorado starting tackle Alex Lewis, who was enrolled at NU last fall but not part of the team as he dealt with legal issues. Lewis is the son of former Husker and NFL lineman Bill Lewis.
The seniors are through playing, but Qvale and Pensick said they hope they have left their mark as far as being consistent and hard-working.
“I think this group over the last five years has really stepped into their own, and really set the standard for what it takes to play offensive line for Nebraska,” Qvale said.