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Freshman class has chance to make immediate impact on offensive line

With the addition of six new scholarship freshmen measuring an average of 6 feet, 5 and a half inches and 287.5 pounds, Nebraska’s offensive line got a lot taller, bigger, and longer this offseason.

But the 2019 class of Bryce Benhart (6-9, 305), Brant Banks (6-7, 300), Ethan Piper (6-4, 300), Michael Lynn (6-6, 290), Jimmy Fritzsche (6-7, 275), and Matthew Anderson (6-6, 255) hasn’t just provided an increase in stature up front.

Based on how things have gone over the first week of fall camp, at least two members of that group could be in line to make an immediate impact in their first seasons as Huskers.

“There’s a couple,” NU offensive line coach Greg Austin said when asked if any of his true freshmen could push for playing time this fall. “I’m not going to name any names, but there’s certainly a couple. You guys can decide who they are.

“But there’s a couple of kids I could very well see - they have the maturity, acquiring the skill, physically we’re trying to get them - and Zach (Duval) is doing a heck of a job with the whole team. Certainly, there’s two guys that are busting their tails in the weight room as well.”

Tackle Bryce Benhart (54) could be in line to play right away as a true freshman this season.
Tackle Bryce Benhart (54) could be in line to play right away as a true freshman this season.

While Austin declined to single out the leading candidates in that regard, there has been plenty of buzz around Benhart and Piper specifically early on.

Benhart immediately stands out with his imposing frame, but as a former four-star recruit who rated as the No. 18 offensive tackle prospect in the country last year, he’s also got the talent to make a quick leap up the depth chart.

While Nebraska has two veterans solidified at the top tackle spots in juniors Brenden Jaimes and Matt Farniok, Benhart has already been getting reps with the No. 2 offense this fall.

Then there’s Piper, who was potentially going to start his NU career on defense but moved to offense due to the need for more depth on the interior line.

Capable of playing either center or guard, Piper looks to have a pretty decent window of opportunity this fall to make a push for playing time given the depth questions that remain at both positions, particularly at center with the status of redshirt freshman Cameron Jurgens still up in the air.

Austin said the key for those two and the rest of his young linemen wasn’t just being physically ready to play at the Big Ten level, but also to be mentally prepared enough to stay on the field consistently.

“I would say the mental side is a bigger challenge because physically either you have it or you don’t,” Austin said. “You either have it or you don’t from a physical standpoint. Either you’re strong or you’re not… But mentally it’s a tough deal because for one you’ve got to learn it, and then you’ve got to learn adjustments and then you have to learn defensive adjustments and you have to learn the fullness of everything, and it just has to happen so quick, all of it.

“There’s different stunts and blitzes and looks you’re going to see from the defense, it’s a tough deal. You really, really have to be a mature kid to play as a true freshman.”

It helps that Nebraska’s young linemen have veterans like Jaimes and Farniok to show them the ropes. Farniok said one of his goals this offseason was to step up his role as a vocal leader, and that starts with making sure the guys behind him have all of the help they need to develop as quickly as possible.

“The new guys there are always going to be on a learning curve from high school to college ball,” Farniok said. “You just have to take them under your wing and understand that it’s going to be more of understanding you can’t just be the big kid that leans on someone and shoves someone over without trying.

“It’s now you have to focus on technique, you have to get the steps right. We've got a great bunch of kids, and they recruited the right type of kids. They are willing to learn, they understand that they are not perfect, that ‘I’m not some guy that is going to walk up and be the next hall of fame o-lineman that is just going to walk on the field.’

“They know this is a game of technique and a power game. They understand that, so they are always wanting to learn and take the advice from the older guys.”