Jeremy Pernell: Portal Delivers Depth to Husker Offensive Line (2022)

Nebraska's offensive line has underperformed and mostly played poorly during coach Scott Frost's tenure. According to Pro Football Focus, the Huskers ranked No. 74 nationally in run blocking and No. 126 in pass blocking last year.

It doesn't matter what system offensive coordinator Mark Whipple plans to implement this fall. If the O-line doesn't make significant strides under new coach Donovan Raiola, it won't make much difference.

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They'll have to do it without their two best players from last year's line too. In April, Cam Jurgens was drafted in the second round by the Philadelphia Eagles, and in late June, we learned that starting left guard Nouredin Nouili would miss the 2022 season due to a failed NCAA drug test. With starting right guard Matt Sichterman opting not to use his final season of eligibility, the Huskers have the task of replacing their entire interior line.

Even without Nouili, the Huskers return six players with starting experience. Despite that, one of Nebraska's priorities when looking for transfer portal help this offseason was to find O-line depth.

Jeremy Pernell: Portal Delivers Depth to Husker Offensive Line (1)

Kevin Williams Jr. comes to Nebraska as a multi-year starter for Northern Colorado. He started eight games at guard as a redshirt freshman in 2018 and nine at left guard in 2019. After COVID-19 wiped out most FCS seasons in 2020, Williams started two games in 2021 at left tackle. He was off to a promising start last year, but his season with the Bears came to an unceremonious end.

According to local reports and court documents, shortly after the Bears' second game of the season, Williams was suspended from UNC's campus through the spring 2022 semester because, in August, a loaded gun that belonged to him had been found unattended in a backpack in his locker. Williams argued the suspension was too harsh and both a UNC appeals process and a federal court agreed with him. His suspension was ultimately lifted, but Williams opted to transfer instead of return to Northern Colorado.

Williams entered the transfer portal on Dec. 4. Along with offers from Bowling Green and Western Kentucky, he received interest from Arizona State, Kansas State, Michigan State, Illinois and Utah State.

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The 6-foot-5, 325-pound Williams graduated from Omaha North High School in 2017. A first-team All-Metro pick, Williams was offered a preferred walk-on opportunity by Mike Riley's staff. The point man back then was Kenny Wilhite, who was the director of high school relations on Riley’s staff. Their existing relationship was an important jumping-off point.

Barrett Ruud, who handles most of Nebraska's in-state recruiting, made an in-home visit with Williams on Dec. 9. During the visit, Scott Frost FaceTimed with Kevin as well. The Husker head coach told Williams he liked his film and singled out his performance in the 2021 season opener against Colorado. Williams played well against one of the Pac-12's best defensive ends, 6-foot-7, 290-pound Terrance Lang.

Frost invited Kevin and his family to campus the following day so the two could meet for the first time in person. It also gave Williams the opportunity to meet Mark Whipple and spend time talking shop with Donovan Raiola. The two watched film and Raiola explained the blocking scheme and technique he would be teaching.

The icing came when Frost sat down with Kevin and his family for about two hours. Williams decided to commit to Frost during the visit, publicly announcing his pledge on Dec. 11. Williams is a grad transfer and is listed as a senior on Nebraska's roster.

Jeremy Pernell: Portal Delivers Depth to Husker Offensive Line (2)

Hunter Anthony was on the fast track at Oklahoma State early in his career. After redshirting his first year in 2018, he saw action in nine games with four starts during the 2019 season; three at right guard and one at right tackle. He was the starter at right tackle to begin 2020 but sustained a broken foot in the season opener that kept him out for eight games. He returned for the regular-season finale and for the Cheez-It Bowl against Miami.

He was a reserve this past season, playing in 11 games mostly on special teams, but rotated in on the O-line as well. Anthony was also occasionally used as a blocking tight end in jumbo packages.

The 6-foot-6, 325-pound Anthony had an interesting transfer experience. He entered his name into the portal on Dec. 6 but stayed part of the Cowboys team during bowl practices and their Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame.

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Nebraska was interested immediately, as were several other schools. Anthony received around 25 offers after entering the portal, with additional Power Five tenders coming from Virginia, Purdue, Rutgers, Indiana and Syracuse.

At the time, Frost hadn't hired his new offensive line coach or offensive coordinator, so Erik Chinander and Mike Dawson flew to see Anthony in Stillwater. The Husker coaches made a great impression and positioned Nebraska as a contender. With finals and bowl prep, however, Anthony wasn't sure when - or if - he would be able to take any recruiting visits.

That changed after a discussion with Mike Gundy. Anthony asked the OSU head coach if he could miss a practice in order to take a visit to Lincoln and, to his surprise, Gundy was okay with it.

On Dec. 10, Anthony made the six-hour drive to Lincoln. He was able to meet with newly hired Donovan Raiola, and the two quickly hit it off. In fact, before the two actually met, Anthony had already received favorable reviews from several acquaintances, including former Oklahoma State All-American and current Chicago Bear Teven Jenkins. Raiola was Jenkins’ assistant offensive line coach in Chicago until he left to take the Husker job. Anthony also spoke with a former OSU strength coach, Anthony Hibbert, who is also with the Bears.

Before leaving Sunday night to head back to Stillwater, Anthony committed to Frost, who encouraged him to wait until after OSU’s bowl game to announce. Frost and Anthony decided it would be a respectful gesture toward Gundy by not being a distraction leading into the bowl game.

True to his word, Anthony waited until the day after OSU's 37-35 come-from-behind win to announce his impending transfer to Nebraska. Anthony is a grad transfer with two years of eligibility remaining.

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Jeremy Pernell: Portal Delivers Depth to Husker Offensive Line (6)

Looking ahead, where might Anthony and Williams stack up on the 2022 depth chart? Anthony came out of spring battling for the No. 2 job behind Bryce Benhart at right tackle. Williams was in a tight race for the starting right guard job with Broc Bando. Now that the team is without Nouili, could Williams be a candidate on the left side? With his 7-foot-1 wingspan, it's not surprising Williams has also spent the offseason working at left tackle.

The staff would benefit from settling on its starting five as quickly as possible to build a chemistry among that group. But there are so many questions.

If healthy, Teddy Prochazka could be slotted at left tackle. But how soon will that be? After playing in five games with two starts last season, he tore the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his left knee during the first half of the Michigan game. Will he be full-go when camp opens?

Either way, I think it's smart for Husker fans to temper their expectations for him this season. Remember, a year ago Turner Corcoran was in the same situation. After a promising sample size in 2020, there were huge expectations for him last season. But he battled an injury during fall camp and I think it impacted his season much more than people know. Like Corcoran, Prochazka's ceiling is immense, but let's not expect All-Conference out of Teddy just quite yet.

Where they put Corcoran will have a domino effect on the rest of the line. That decision is unclear after Corcoran missed spring ball. Frost has commented that he could play all five positions. There was talk in the offseason of moving him to center, but Trent Hixson seems to have settled into that spot after beating out Ethan Piper in the spring.

Does Corcoran start at right tackle or slide inside to guard? Donovan Raiola needs to determine who his best five are early in fall camp. I think he knows three with Corcoran, Prochazka and Hixson. The decision becomes whether Raiola thinks that picture has Corcoran at tackle or not. Turner has started 12 games at tackle (10 at left, two at right), but I think his best position is guard.

Bryce Benhart is a key puzzle piece in that room too. With 18 career starts at right tackle, does the former blue-chip recruit finally take a big leap in his development? Will he flourish in Raiola's blocking scheme? If he can turn the corner as a player, I think that would go a long way for this O-line.

Brant Banks, Hunter Anthony and Ezra Miller are intriguing tackle options. Banks has been the team's No. 3 tackle for a couple years now and started last season against Illinois. Miller was a highly rated recruit for Iowa before transferring to Nebraska in 2020.

Kevin Williams and Broc Bando will face stiff competition from highly regarded youngster Henry Lutovsky. The staff really likes the redshirt freshman guard's upside and potential. Could Ethan Piper move back to guard from center? He started 10 games at left guard in 2020 and 2021.

Well, since it's the preseason, I'll join the party and take a stab at who the starting five could be when the team travels to Ireland to open the season against Northwestern: Prochazka (LT), Corcoran (LG), Hixson (C), Bando (RG), Benhart (RT).

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