LIKING WHAT HE SEES on a RETOOLED LINE Cavanaugh praises group’s buy-in, spunk, but knows work remains [JUMP]TWO YEARS FOR LEE Transfer quarterback Tanner Lee will have two seasons of eligibility after sitting out this season. Notes, Page 6C RECRUITING UPDATE Nebraska looks for a strong second half of the recruiting year in a competitive Big Ten, writes Sam McKewon. Page 7C

Veteran offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh is a stickler for detail, center Dylan Utter says. “But he cares about you as a person also.”

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s offensive line coach can’t help but smile.

Ask Mike Cavanaugh about his new bunch and he knows not to neglect the very real possibility of injury, and the group’s need for more improvement and the uncertainty associated with inexperience.

But the veteran coach is having a blast right now.

He’s working with a line that seems to have adopted his own distinctive approach to a tenacious yet tactical battle in the trenches. Cavanaugh is feisty and fiery, yet still measured and calculated. He wants aggressiveness, but without any lapses in technique.

And his talented young unit is following his lead.

“You could kind of see the upside they had,” Cavanaugh said recently. “Once that decision came from within, where it all of a sudden was, ‘Hey, let’s go’ — I thought they always had the ability, but they turned that switch on. Thank God they have. It’s fun to watch.”

It starts with trust, Cavanaugh said.

He pitched his plan last year. He shared his philosophies.

But the players had to buy in — and many of them didn’t have many short-term rewards last season even if they had, since NU relied on its veterans up front in the first year of a new system. Sophomore Nick Gates did start 10 games at right tackle. Senior Dylan Utter was a full-time starter at guard. Four now-departed seniors took most other snaps.

Everyone else, including 2016 projected starters Jerald Foster, David Knevel and Tanner Farmer, had to wait until the offseason, clinging to Cavanaugh’s promise that their hard work would indeed be rewarded if they kept plugging away.

Eight months ago, Cavanaugh wasn’t sure what to expect. He’s got a good idea now.

“I’m just excited,” he said.

He outlined a specific set of offseason drills for the players to rehearse and repeat. They did just that.

He had them crouched in a stance and mirroring the movements of an instructor — like the “old basketball slide defensive drill,” Cavanaugh said. There were other footwork and change-of-direction exercises, too. They worked on leverage, moving in space (for screens) and maintaining proper posture as they stepped through pass-protection movements.

The players embraced the detail. They have since day one. They don’t mind the fact that their position coach continually has a tidbit for them to digest, or that he’s relentless in his methodology.

“The thing with him is, he cares a lot about the game,” Utter said. “But he cares about you as a person also.”

That bond beyond football is important, Cavanaugh said. And not just between him and his players.

Cavanaugh believes the entire offensive line has to form a kinship and a brotherhood. They want to be about the same qualities, to possess a unified identity. There’s selflessness required of this group — they have to be willing to sacrifice and to encourage one another.

“You’ve got to come out there wanting to give everything you’ve got for your line — which is going to be (the best) for the team, at the end of the day,” Foster said. “Never take crap. We’ve got to always believe in that. We’re going to be there for each other. ... You’re five — but at the end of the day, you’re one. The O-line, we stick together.”

Cavanaugh has done his best to help cultivate that.

He’s been known to invite the entire line to his house. He’s grilled chicken and catered in BBQ. Sometimes both. He said the guys just hang out — for three or four hours.

They all took a trip to Fremont sophomore Cole Conrad’s house on a lake over the summer. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong recently paid for the entire line to eat together at Red Robin.

Foster and Gates both admitted that there was a time they didn’t always get along. It was probably a result of sharing the same dorm room.

“Small room,” Gates said. “You know how that is.”

But they’ve always shared a similar punishing personality on the field. Cavanaugh noticed that. So he stuck them next to each other on the line: Foster at left guard and Gates at left tackle. The two work seamlessly together now.

Said Foster: “We don’t even call out half the calls anymore. We know who’s going to be where, or if we need help with some kind of block.”

They’re integral cogs up front, not just because of their potential but also because of their competitive spirit. Utter has that, too, Cavanaugh said. It’s a trait that might just make the difference.

The entire line has spent a portion of the offseason reviewing tape of Nebraska’s 37-29 Foster Farms Bowl win over UCLA. The Huskers ran the ball 62 times and averaged 5.3 yards per attempt. The offensive line set the tone that day. Utter said it had little to do with technique or scheme or assignments.

“We just took the field like we wanted it more,” he said. “I feel like those games kind of lacked that. Games aren’t handed out for free here in college football. You have to approach every game like it could be your last. That’s how we’re doing it this year.”

He’s not the only one who believes that. For younger guys like Gates and Foster, that’s part of their DNA.

Which is why Cavanaugh has been so encouraged to this point.

“They don’t want to just block you,” he said. “They want to kick your butt right into the ground.”

A few minutes later, as he chatted with reporters, the veteran coach delivered a dose of reality. Practices have been far from perfect. Last season featured up-and-down performances from his guys up front. They don’t want that kind of roller coaster again. Plus, there’s a second-string unit that’s combined for just a few meaningful career snaps.

“We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Cavanaugh said.

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