football Edit

RojoBreakdown: OL development an issue at Nebraska?

Mike Cavanaugh is entering his second season as Nebraska's offensive line coach.
Mike Cavanaugh is entering his second season as Nebraska's offensive line coach.

Rebuild the pipeline.

That's been the mantra of Nebraska's offensive line recruiting during the modern era. It was the driving force between NU bringing in four linemen recruits in its class last week, a group Mike Riley seemed quite proud of.

But the Huskers have had just two linemen named first-team all-conference in the past ten years, one of which was a walk-on (Spencer Long, 2012) and the other a junior-college transfer (Ricky Henry, 2010). In that span, Nebraska hasn't had a single four-year scholarship linemen make its conference's first team.

Why the long drought? It's not due to lack of talent. The Huskers have recruited very well along the front line, bringing in 14 four or five-star linemen in the past 10 years. According to Rivals' recruiting rankings, only Ohio State and Michigan have routinely recruited better along the offensive front, and even those schools don't hold a massive edge on the Huskers:

Offensive line recruits since 2006
Team Average star ranking 5 stars 4 stars 3 stars 2 stars

Ohio State

3.6

2

19

12

2

Michigan

3.6

2

17

10

3

Nebraska

3.5

1

13

17

0

Penn State

3.1

0

12

23

7

Michigan State

3.1

0

8

21

5

Maryland

3.0

2

7

22

10

Wisconsin

3.0

1

4

23

6

Iowa

3.0

0

6

16

5

North-

western

2.9

0

1

29

6

Minnesota

2.9

0

1

28

6

Illinois

2.8

0

5

23

11

Rutgers

2.7

0

4

15

14

Purdue

2.7

0

1

13

8

Indiana

2.4

0

5

23

11

Nebraska hasn't quite landed as many blue-chippers as the Buckeyes and Wolverines, but it has hauled in a number of talented prospects. The tougher part is figuring out why that talent hasn't translated.

The Huskers have had just six offensive linemen drafted since 2006, none of which were picked earlier than the third round. Other than Long, a third-rounder in 2014, no NU lineman has been drafted higher than the fifth round (Carl Nicks, 2008) in that span.

Compare that to the rest of the Big Ten, and a red flag has to be raised:

NFL Draft picks by Big Ten school since 2006
Team Points Total draft picks 1st round 2nd round 3-7 round

Wisconsin

54

10

4

2

6

Iowa

42

10

3

0

7

Penn State

32

8

1

2

5

Ohio State

30

8

1

2

5

Michigan

24

6

2

0

4

Illinois

19

4

0

1

3

Rutgers

15

3

1

0

3

Indiana

14

3

0

1

2

Nebraska

14

6

0

0

6

Purdue

12

5

0

0

5

Maryland

5

2

0

0

2

Minnesota

3

2

0

0

2

Michigan State

1

1

0

0

1

North-western

1

1

0

0

1

Points system: 1st-round draft pick = 7 points, 2nd-round pick = 6 point, etc.

Interestingly enough, the drought goes back quite a ways. Nebraska's last first-round linemen was Dean Steinkuhler in 1984. Tony Fonoti (2002), Dominic Raiola (2001) and Zach Weigert (1995) were all second-round selections, while Will Shields (1993) was a third-round pick who went on the make the Hall of Fame.

But let's get back to the modern era. Nebraska linemen aren't being drafted high, and even when they do reach the pros they haven't had much impact. Nicks was a first-team All Pro in 2011, but consider this - ex-Husker linemen have combined for 172 NFL starts since 2006. Wisconsin grad Joe Thomas alone has started 144 games alone since 2007.

Bottom line - the Huskers are bringing in top-rated linemen, but those players aren't developing at the college level or contributing much in the pros. If this were a one or two-year blip, it's obviously not a big deal.

But this trend extends back some time. Take a look back at NU's highest-rated offensive line recruits since 2006. Jalin Barnett has yet to play and Nick Gates looks like a potential stud. But there are some painful misses amongst this group:

Nebraska's 4 and 5-star OL recruits in the last 10 years
Player Year Ranking Games played Starts Notable

Jalin Barnett

2015

No. 25 OG (4-star)

0

0

Redshirted in 2015

Nick Gates

2014

No. 24 OT (4-star)

10

10

Started every game in 2015 when healthy

Tanner Farmer

2014

No. 4 OG (4-star)

0

0

Will compete for time this fall

Paul Thurston

2012

No. 14 OT (4-star)

23

0

Current backup center

Ryan Klachko

2011

No. 12 OG (4-star)

0

0

Trans-

ferred to Illinois; retired in 2012

Tyler Moore

2011

No. 5 OT (4-star)

9

4

Trans-ferred to Florida after one season

Yoshi Hardrick

2010

JUCO tranfer (4-star)

27

13

Starting LT as a senior

Andrew Rodriguez

2010

No. 24 OT (4-star)

40

21

Honorable-Mention All-Big Ten (2013)

Baker Steinkuhler

2008

No. 2 OT (5-star)

51

28

Spent entire career at DT

Jaivorio Burkes

2007

No. 7 OT (4-star)

17

7

Retired in 2011 (medical condition)

D.J. Jones

2006

No. 16 OT (4-star)

39

17

Started every game at RT as a senior

Carl Nicks

2006

JUCO transfer (4-star)

23

13

Became All-Pro guard in the NFL

The outlook here would likely be much rosier had Steinkuhler not been forced to play defensive tackle out of roster necessity and if Burkes hadn't seen his career ended early due to a medical condition. But Nicks and Gates are the only two on this list to start at least 55 percent of their career games at Nebraska.

Moore and Klachko both left early and Thurston has hardly played outside of mop-up duty. Jones, Rodriguez and Hardrick all had solid careers, but the recruiting hype surrounding their commitments suggested they would have a greater impact.

The good news is that the first signs from Nebraska's new staff are promising. The line's play clearly improved over the course of the season and, when healthy, Gates was a revelation in 2015. That's a testament to the work of position coach Mike Cavanaugh, who impressed with his ability to teach and work the recruiting trail. Fellow assistants Keith Williams and Trent Bray have deservedly gotten credit for their work in recruiting, but Cavanaugh deserves his props as well. Pulling in all these linemen wouldn't have been possible without him.

And this is a good-looking group. John Raridon is a four-star that Nebraska stiff-armed Iowa and Stanford to haul in, and Matt Farniok was one of the most coveted linemen in the region. Bryan Brokop and Boe Wilson don't have quite the same hype, but it's not hard to see one or both becoming multi-year starters down the road.

It's important to remember that the underwhelming development happened under previous regimes. It's very possible that Riley and Cavanaugh know the recipe to getting the best out of their big uglies.

And it's not as if the previous staffs completely bungled development. Long's story is a credit to their coaching ability, and several productive players such as Jeremiah Sirles and Brent Qvale have gone on to have NFL careers. Not all successful linemen begin their careers as four and five-star prospects.

But it's also important to acknowledge Nebraska's misses and try to learn from them. It's nearly impossible to consistently win games without featuring a strong offensive line, and Nebraska is clearly making an effort to rebuild the pipeline. Hopefully they're using a bit stronger mortar.