This year Nebraska has a chance to field its best offensive line in well over a decade. This is a senior-laden group led by second-team All-American Spencer Long. Long (6-4, 315), who has started the last 27 games at right guard, is arguably the best offensive lineman Nebraska has fielded since Toniu Fonoti in 2001. Long is a bulldozing run-blocker who is a preseason candidate for both the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award. While it's his ability to open up running lanes that get him noticed, Long is also adept at pass blocking and rarely gives up a sack or is called for a penalty.
Three senior offensive tackles return with extensive playing experience. The best of that group is second-team All-Big Ten Jeremiah Sirles (6-6, 310). Sirles has played in 40 games for Nebraska with 28 starts, splitting those starts equally on the left and right side. Like Long, Sirles is on the preseason watch list for the Outland Trophy. While Sirles is the most talented of the tackle trio, the most versatile could be Andrew Rodriguez (6-6, 330). After starting his Husker career at guard, where he made 7 starts, Rodriguez switched to tackle for his junior season and was part of the team's tackle rotation, making a start against Northwestern. Rodriguez wasn't the only lineman to switch from guard to tackle this past season. Brent Qvale (6-7, 315) also began his Husker career on the interior, playing in 26 games as a reserve guard prior to moving to the tackle spot. An underrated athlete, Qvale started 13 games last year at left tackle.
Despite their edge in experience, Qvale and Rodriguez will face stiff competition this fall from incoming juco transfer Matt Finnin (6-7, 305). Finnin will step on campus and be the most physically gifted lineman on the Husker roster. An aggressive run-blocker, Finnin also shows the athleticism to potentially be the teams best pass blocker. Finnin was considered one of the top junior-college offensive lineman this past year and ignored full-court presses by Ohio State and Oklahoma, among many others, to sign with Nebraska.
The guard spot opposite Spencer Long is likely to be manned by junior Jake Cotton (6-6, 305). Cotton, who has great size and strength for the position, has drawn comparisons to former Husker guard Ricky Henry for the tenacity in which he plays. Like Henry, Cotton will often play to the echo of the whistle. Slowed by injuries for most of his career, Cotton is expected to be completely recovered from a severe ACL injury he suffered as a redshirt freshman. Coaches are expecting big things from Cotton over these next two years of eligibility.
The starting center is slated to be versatile senior Cole Pensick. Pensick (6-2, 275), like Jake Cotton, began his Husker career as a defensive tackle. This past season Pensick was the top backup at both guard spots and by mid-season was splitting game reps at left guard with starter Seung Hoon Choi. Pensick started the final two games at center after Justin Jackson was sidelined by an injury. Pensick is one of the strongest players on the team and a superb pulling lineman. Pensick was named to the preseason Rimington Trophy watch list.
Behind the seasoned veterans are some young, talented underclassmen who are fighting to find a spot in the line's rotation. One of the top candidates for playing time will be juco transfer Chongo Kondolo (6-4, 290). Kondolo was a junior-college first-team All-America playing offensive tackle for Fresno City College, but Husker coaches like him at guard. Kondolo, who has a redshirt available if needed, is also versatile enough to play center.
A pair of 2011 recruits will also be strong contenders for a spot in the rotation at guard. Redshirt sophomores Ryne Reeves (6-3, 295) and Givens Price (6-4, 295) were both standouts on the scout team before seeing limited action this past season playing behind several upperclassmen. Both Reeves and Price have developed very nicely under John Garrison and coaches have high expectations for both of them.
Two players will battle for the backup job at center behind Pensick. Junior Mark Pelini (6-0, 295) was the No. 2 center last season and saw action in 7 games. The nephew of Head Coach Bo Pelini, Mark was limited in the spring because of an injury but is expected to be at full strength this fall. Pelini will be pushed hard in camp for the backup job by redshirt freshman Paul Thurston. Thurston (6-5, 280) was a consensus four-star recruit after starring at offensive tackle for Arvada West (CO). Able to play multiple positions along the line, coaches had Thurston spend the majority of the spring at center where he is projected as the future of the position. Thurston has more physical ability than Pelini and if he can continue his transition to the interior of the line, he will put himself in position for playing time this fall.
Earning reps behind seniors Sirles, Qvale, Rodriguez and incoming junior-college transfer Finnin will be difficult, but coaches are very high on sophomore Zach Sterup. Sterup (6-8, 315) was a four-star recruit in 2011 according to both Rivals and 247sports. While redshirting and starring on the scout team, Sterup has taken full advantage of James Dobson and the Husker strength and conditioning program. Sterup has gained around 50 pounds since entering the program and now has the strength and frame to complete in the Big Ten.
Along with standout juco transfers Finnin and Kondolo, Nebraska also signed three standout High School offensive lineman. The headliner of this trio is David Knevel (6-9, 300) of Brantford, Ontario, Canada. Knevel, who was rated a four-star recruit by 247sports and ESPN Scouts Inc., enrolled early at Nebraska and was able to participate in spring practices. Along with Knevel, who spurned Alabama to come to Lincoln, the Huskers also signed Zach Hannon (6-5, 295) of Kansas City, Missouri and Dwayne Johnson (6-6, 275) of Pearland, Texas. Their development is in its infancy, but Knevel and Johnson are expected to start their careers at offensive tackle, while Zach Hannon is expected to begin at guard. All three players are expected to use valuable redshirts this season while they acclimate to the college game and add strength in the Husker weight room.
Possible 2013 Depth Chart:
LT: Matt Finnin (Jr.), Brent Qvale (Sr.), Zach Sterup (So.)
LG: Jake Cotton (Jr.), Chongo Kondolo (Jr.), Givens Price (So.)
C: Cole Pensick (Sr.), Paul Thurston (RFr.), Mark Pelini (Jr.)
RG: Spencer Long (Sr.), Ryne Reeves (So.), Mike Moudy (Jr.)
RT: Jeremiah Sirles (Sr.), Andrew Rodriguez (Sr.), Zach Sterup (So.)
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all football website N2FL.com. He served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on recruitment and talent analysis, including the NFL Draft. You can email him at N2FL@hotmail.com.