While there is tight competition across the board at pretty much every position on Nebraska's roster this spring, no unit may have more intense battles than the offensive line.
With the influx of a cast of promising redshirt freshmen and the addition of junior college talents like Jermarcus Hardrick, essentially every spot on the line is up for grabs this season, meaning even the most experienced veterans are approaching each practice as a competition to keep their starting jobs.
Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson said the competition on the offensive line has brought out the best in everyone, and it would only benefit the unit as a whole by making each player work harder and creating more depth up front.
"They've got heat on them," Watson said. "You've got to respond when you've got heat on you. I think the younger players that have come in have flashed on film and are becoming more consistent on film. All those things heighten your sense of urgency if you're a veteran player. Competition is the best thing for a football team."
Watson said he's especially seen improvement in the offensive line's play in the running game. He said the coaching staff decided to streamline the blocking schemes to help simplify the running game as a whole, which in turn has allowed the line to work more on perfecting its techniques rather than spending its time learning new schemes.
He said the decision to streamline the blocking was simply a matter of the staff "getting better as coaches."
"What we're doing scheme-wise has been really good," Watson said. "It fits our personnel, and you see the breakout runs and explosion runs that we've had, it's enough to get anybody excited. It's a pretty easy target for an offensive line. I think we've made things streamlined for them and made things easier."
One lineman in particular that Watson said has made big strides this off-season is senior right tackle D.J. Jones. By better distributing his weight with hard work in the weight room, Jones has steadily put himself in prime position to win a starting job come the start of the season.
"He probably really started to progress at the end of last season," Watson said. "When he got nicked up, unfortunately it kind of impeded it, but he had a really good winter, and he's really picked up that same spot he was at when he was kind of starting to get it. He really flashes on film at times for us. He's going to be in that mix for the best five."
Huskers progressing ahead of schedule
After 11 practices over the past three weeks this spring, Watson said the Huskers are progressing better than he and the rest of the staff had anticipated.
On both sides of the ball, Watson said the overall competition and the momentum carried over from last season have made for one of the better springs Nebraska has had since head coach Bo Pelini and his staff arrived three years ago.
"We've had a really good spring camp on really both sides of the ball," Watson said. "We're farther ahead than where we thought we would be. We've got a lot of work to do, so you're always coaching. That's what coaching is. We've had some really good spots, and there's still some spots to show up."
Watson said one of the biggest reasons NU is on such a good pace has been the development of the young players this off-season. He said the experience they gained last season has helped them take the next step mentally to where they're not just focusing on what to do on each play, but also how to do it properly.
"They're assignment sound," Watson said. "They're starting to execute with proper technique. You can see their fundamentals coming out. We just have to be more consistent at it and pay more attention to detail. Sometimes it happens, especially with younger players, they execute and then they run plays. There's a difference. When they run plays, there's a mistake. When they execute, there's no mistakes.
"We've got to get them in that mode. We've just got to keep coaching and get them in that execution mode time after time after time. That's when you get pretty good."
***With the annual Red-White Game now just a week away, Watson was asked if the staff has started putting any thought into how the teams would be divided and what they'll be looking for in particular in the scrimmage.
Apparently, they haven't put much thought into it at all.
"We'll discuss that," Watson said. "We haven't even thought about that, to be honest with you. I haven't been thinking about that right now. I've just been thinking about today's practice and then next one we've got to get to.
"Knowing us, we probably won't talk about it until Wednesday. We'll have a Spring Game, don't get me wrong, but we'll talk about then. That's just how we do our business."
***Watson said no one has emerged yet as a frontrunner in the quarterback competition.
"They're all contenders," he said. "We'll see how it all plays out. That's what we're doing. It's that simple."
***Senior wide receiver Niles Paul got even more praise for his improved play and focus this off-season, as Watson said Paul's consistency each day in practice has impressed him as much as anything.
"He's a warrior is the best way to put it," Watson said. "I guess the best way to explain it is he's become very detailed and he's a great effort player. With those two things, he's really taken off. He started doing this last year, but the difference between last year and this year is his consistency. He'd have maybe a rough spot (last year), he doesn't have rough spots much anymore."
***Saturday was a pretty good day for Watson, as he was able to do his two favorite things back-to-back.
"Today's a great day, man," Watson said. "I get to coach football in the morning and watch The Masters in the afternoon. It doesn't get any better than that."
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