Huskers' offensive line feels urgency to run the ball better, aims for better consistency in 2017

Tre Bryant ran for 36 yards on three carries in the spring game and is part of a Nebraska rushing attack seeking consistency in 2017. 

LINCOLN — David Knevel said the Nebraska offense seemed to find traction this spring with a particular outside running play, with “pinners and pullers” and a design that the right tackle thought was a good fit for Husker linemen.

NU coach Mike Riley had talked about finding “identity” runs before spring practice. This one maybe had possibilities for the crew tasked with creating space for the running backs.

“We’ve got a lot of athletic guys up front, and it’s really letting us show our athleticism, and putting the ball on the edge,” Knevel said. “And I think if we continue that throughout fall camp, that could be a staple play for us.”

Whatever the play or plays might be, Nebraska points toward the 2017 season with a strong urgency to run the ball better.

The Huskers slipped from 5.3 yards per carry in 2014 to 4.7 in 2015 — after Ameer Abdullah left and a new offense arrived with Riley — and then sagged to a 4.2 average last season that ranked No. 87 nationally.

While the line could point to injuries and youth as potential reasons, that didn’t lessen the blow as that unit went to the offseason.

“We know this last year that our rushing decreased, and that bothered us,” Knevel said. “And for whatever reason it was — tougher opponents, or falling off at the end of the year — we talk about that a lot in our room. We want to try to keep that consistent.”

Riley was pleased with some of what he saw during the Red-White scrimmage on Saturday, when running backs Tre Bryant, Devine Ozigbo and Mikale Wilbon combined for 110 yards on 13 carries.

But Riley also was careful through most of the spring not to go overboard on declaring anything fixed just yet.

“What I’ve seen so far is there’s just enough variety in what we’re doing, and there has been some proficiency in some of that stuff,” he said. “You’ve seen a little bit of the counter and the counter gap schemes with the pulling elements to it — and I think that that is a part that we haven’t run much. We’re going to have to have some things in the running game that replace a lot of the quarterback runs that we had a year ago.”

The first part of the spring, Riley said, was not all that encouraging.

“But you got to stay with it, and it’s become more encouraging as we’ve gone on,” he said.

Along with finding what works and doing it over and over, being physical and using the right techniques are a must. But the most common key mentioned by several linemen finishing the spring was consistency.

“Work together as a group, and just stay on one track,” left tackle Nick Gates said. “We were on kind of different levels and things last year, and didn’t really work together as much as we should have.

“Especially there toward the end we weren’t consistent. That’s one of our big things: to really be consistent and be able to run the ball every down if we want.”

In its final three losses of the season, Nebraska ran for 78 yards at Ohio State, 90 at Iowa and 61 vs. Tennessee. The Huskers had started 2016 with some promise, running for 228 yards against Oregon and a season-high 310 at Northwestern.

As September turned to October, injuries sidelined or slowed Knevel, Gates and right guard Tanner Farmer. And left guard Jerald Foster wouldn’t be back until November from a knee injury suffered in August.

That doesn’t justify the drop in performance, said center Cole Conrad, who spelled Knevel at right tackle over the second half of the year.

“That was the biggest thing: kind of the roller coaster, I guess, the ups and downs throughout the season,” Conrad said. “We’d have one good running game and then we’d come back the next week and just couldn’t run the ball. We’re just preaching a lot this spring to be consistent.”

Gates said line coach Mike Cavanaugh set out after his second season “to kind of change the mentality around here.”

Being more aggressive on the field. Running on and off between series. Cutting out any of the bellyaching that might occur during practice.

Gates said the returning linemen were equally intent on changing the atmosphere.

“Cav’s a little more on us, which is good,” Gates said. “That’s his job, so we expect him to do that.”

Gates said he thought missed assignments were down this spring. He said communication was better.

Some confidence started to return, and eventually it will be time to see if that translates to numbers.

“It’s just a matter of doing what we can every day and making sure that we’re working hard, really hard, and I think the stats will take care of themselves,” center Michael Decker said.

The Red team finished with 195 rushing yards on 24 attempts (8.1 per carry) in the spring game, but while going against lower-team defenders. The defense also wasn’t showing much or blitzing much, Gates said, “so I’d hope we’d be able to run the ball like that.”

The offense also achieved another goal with some success on first down (6.6 yards in the first half), but next season will be about bringing it all together.

“If we can have some consistency on the ground, and be that team, it’s an absolute necessity,” Riley said.

rich.kaipust@owh.com, 402-444-1042, 
twitter.com/RKaipustOWH

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