There's nobody on the Nebraska coaching staff that the naysayers like to attack more than Barney, and they've got a reason. The offensive line coach has presided over a unit that's been erratic at best over the past couple of years. If you said it has underachieved, I wouldn't argue with you.
But here's the thing. A lot of these same people were trying to run coach George Darlington out of town on a rail in the early 1990s, because his Cornhusker defensive backfield was getting sliced up with regularity. In fact, those folks were trying to get a two-for-one deal, and would have gladly said goodbye to defensive coordinator Charlie McBride at the same time.
Maybe they're right this time. We're about to find out. I don't think Cotton will still have a job in Lincoln next February if Nebraska's o-line has another spotty, up-and-down, false-starting season. Bo Pelini won't keep him around, not even with a couple of sons on the roster.
Let's take a quick look at 2011. As I scan the year, using my simple-but-highly-unscientific "acceptable/unacceptable" method of grading the offensive line in each game, I'd give the Huskers six "As" and seven "Us." But to be fair, the Nebraska defensive line's 2011 report card would look even worse.
The offensive line missed a major opportunity by stumbling around early in the season, foreshadowing the sporadic year ahead. UT-Chattanooga had no business being on the same field with NU, but the Cornhusker offense could put together only 18 first downs. The o-line looked horrible in the first half against Fresno State, and Cotton didn't substitute much, missing a big opportunity to get experience for his younger players.
I judged the o-line unacceptable in each of Nebraska's four losses, although defensive shortcomings were more to blame. Then in November at Happy Valley, the Husker offensive line got weaker as the second half went along, and the defense had to hang on for dear life to preserve what could have been a comfortable win. Another unacceptable Husker o-line performance.
The Ohio State game was the high-water mark for the offensive line, which played its single best half of football that night. The Iowa game was next. Rex Burkhead slowly strangled the Hawkeyes with one gut-churning run after another, and the Huskers ran 83 plays from scrimmage.
Until the bowl game, I'd say that Cotton's unit had been erratic but overall, showed improvement in its run blocking. But a disheartening 30-13 loss to South Carolina which came after Nebraska had more than held its own at the line of scrimmage until the middle of the third quarter revealed many unresolved problems, including the recurring theme of false starts, untimely sacks and lack of cohesiveness.
The start of the 2012 season is at hand. Barney's o-line will have a lot to say about whether Rex Burkhead's backups get enough touches, and whether Taylor Martinez outplays Michigan's Denard Robinson or Braxton Miller of Ohio State head-to-head. There will be a decent amount of experience returning. There should be no excuses up front this fall. I'm sure not in the mood to listen to any.
But what exactly would success look like for Barney Cotton? Let's start with winning on first down, setting up manageable second-and-6 situations. Then keep the tinkering to a minimum, letting everyone get settled in to his position.
Success would look like Taylor Martinez finally getting comfortable in the pocket against Southern Miss and Burkhead breaking a big run in the second half. It would look like UCLA fans heading for the Rose Bowl exits as the Huskers turn up the tempo without penalties and wear down a thin Bruin defense near the end of the third quarter.
There needs to be crisp precision in games 3 and 4 against Arkansas State and Idaho State, not the lack of focus we've seen lately when Nebraska lined up against inferior nonconference teams. If the Huskers don't have third-stringers playing in the fourth quarter against the Red Wolves and Bengals, it will be a bad sign indeed for Cotton's job security.
Think of the Nebraska offensive line staying healthy and gaining momentum as Big Ten Conference play began. That's when we'll start to see if the Husker offense which has one of the nation's best running backs, a veteran quarterback and a highly-touted set of receivers is on schedule.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at email@example.com