Heading into the 2013 season, Nebraska's young defensive line is a question mark; most Husker fans can agree on that.
But after more than a decade, will the offensive line finally become an exclamation point? That is the question.
It's been a while since Nebraska had a truly dominant offensive line. There were signs of improvement last year, but in Big Ten conference games, finishing third in total offense and fourth in rushing is nothing to shout about. The defense likely will be shaky at times this fall, so the offense needs to be dynamic. There are ball carriers and pass receivers aplenty. It will all come down to offensive line play.
Reese Strickland-US PRESS WIRE
There should be no question – none whatsoever. A collegiate offensive line that has 78 combined career starts returning this fall should be absolute bedrock, the fabric that a tremendous offensive unit is built upon. Especially when the quarterback has 39 career starts of his own – and so it could be this fall.
All-conference guard Spencer Long is the real deal, and stands a good chance of becoming NU's first two-time first-team all-conference offensive lineman since Matt Slauson in 2007-08. Long has 27 career starts. Center Cole Pensick (two starts) and junior guard Jake Cotton (no starts) will join Long to form the nucleus, barring injury or a major unexpected development in fall camp. I expect them to be solid. But by rights, the best, most consistent play, should come from the tackles, where seniors Jeremiah Sirles (28 starts) and Brent Qvale (13 starts) line up.
Sirles was second-team All-Big Ten last fall, but many times he had problems with pass protection, as did Qvale. And the No. 3 tackle, Andrew Rodriguez (eight career starts), was just as inconsistent. All had trouble communicating with the tight end at critical moments, leaving an unblocked defender roaring in toward Taylor Martinez.
Why did the most experienced part of the Husker o-line have the most problems last year? That has to stop.
Nebraska fumbled the ball 35 times last year and Martinez was responsible for many of them. He also threw 12 interceptions. Martinez is fabulous when he maintains his focus where it belongs – on running the offense, on his checkdowns, on audibling at the line of scrimmage. But despite three years of experience, he has more than his share of problems when under pressure.
Martinez takes a lot of heat for his turnovers – and deservedly so. But if the offensive tackles can keep pass rushers from crashing in from the edge, Martinez is much more likely to keep the ball secured.
Under Bo Pelini, the Huskers are 35-2 when they at least stay even in turnovers. When they lose the turnover battle, the Huskers are 13-18. This fall, the o-line absolutely, positively, must keep Martinez's jersey clean and his mind uncluttered when he drops back to throw.
The run blocking should be crisp. The pass protection should be dependable. The penalties should be minimal. The excuses should be nonexistent. No question.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org