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Riley expresses concern over o-line progress thus far

Nebraska's offensive line remains a big work in progress heading into the final week of spring ball.
Nebraska's offensive line remains a big work in progress heading into the final week of spring ball. (Tyler Krecklow)

Maybe the biggest concern that has arisen over the past three weeks of spring practices has been the underwhelming performance of the offensive line.

There was already some red flags around the unit with how last season ended in complete thuds against Iowa and Tennessee, and through 12 spring practices thus far, the o-line has done little to alleviate those worries.

Rather than paint a picture of total optimism about his observations of the offensive line, head coach Mike Riley actually showed his hand a bit by being up front and honest following Saturday’s practice.

“I think that we have to be very, very concerned and thoughtful about our growth and make sure that that’s happening,” Riley said. “I think that we need confidence, and I also think that we need to be mentally tough.

“So the combination of those two things are going to be really important to the growth of that group. That group is talented and experienced, and still yet, has to grow for us to be good.”

When asked to follow up on his comment of being “very, very concerned” about the offensive line, the third-year NU coach only slightly changed his tune.

“Did I say ‘very, very concerned?’ Well, I think our concern is that we want to and need to find paths to grow,” Riley said. “We certainly want to be better. You guys know where we were offensively a year ago. You know what our goal was running the ball and where we ended up…

“Why don’t I say I’m ‘excited’ about getting better, because I think we will. I really do. I think we will get better.”

One of the biggest issues facing the o-line has been the apparent regression of starting left tackle Nick Gates.

After struggling from the first snap to stop Tennessee’s star defensive end Derek Barnett in the bowl game, the junior-to-be hasn’t looked like his normal self all spring. He even dropped a noticeable amount of weight, which he admits has affected his play in practice.

“That definitely taught me a lesson,” Gates said of the bowl game. “I think I needed that lesson to be taught, too, so I think it was good for me in the end. The game wasn’t too fun to watch or look at after, but I definitely thought it helped out a lot…

“I kind of gave up on myself a little bit through there, and I’ve just got to keep going and playing hard. That’s probably the big thing.”

On top of that, the Huskers are still searching for the right combination on the starting five up front. Cole Conrad, who entered the spring competing for the top right tackle job, recently moved inside to center and is now maybe the frontrunner over Michael Decker.

The shuffling and bruised egos have certainly played a part in the o-line’s sluggish start to the offseason, but the good news is that there is still plenty of time - nearly five months, to be exact - for the group to figure its issues out before the season opener.

“There’s some real competition throughout that unit, really,” Riley said. “I think what that does — when you do this like the quarterback deal — it obviously just puts an exclamation point on, there is competition right here, and one guy that might have had an edge has to work to keep the edge.

“The other guy sees opportunity. To me, there’s nothing bad about that.”