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Husker offensive line coach Barney Cotton will operate under a microscope this fall, enduring the kind of scrutiny few of his peers across the country ever have to deal with.

LJS file photo

In many college football programs, an offensive line coach is about as well-known as the team trainer.

Then there's Nebraska.

Barney Cotton understands the scrutiny he's under. An Omaha Burke graduate and former Husker offensive lineman, he possesses a keen awareness of NU fans' unique passion for O-line play.

He knows folks are watching his position group intently this season, some fed up with Nebraska's inconsistency in the trenches in recent years. There's no way to put it delicately: Cotton gets hammered by legions of Internet illuminati.

"I haven't looked, but I can only imagine," he said Monday. "But I also know it's pretty easy to make comments when you're anonymous. And nobody is really going to notice but us (coaches and players) what goes on.

"People can speculate. …"

Brian Moore cleared up some speculation regarding his son Tyler's departure from the program. The elder Moore said his son wasn't enjoying football. However, he said, Tyler adores Bo Pelini. Loves Tim Beck. Still favors the color red.

Cotton's name was conspicuous by its absence.

Yeah, just what Barney needed right now.

Folks had been speculating that Moore left Lincoln in large part because of differences with Cotton. Brian Moore's comments fanned that flame, and turned up the heat on Cotton, fair or not.

The heat had been building. Prized offensive line recruit Andrus Peat picked Stanford in February. Then guard Ryan Klachko, like Moore a four-star player in the Huskers' class of 2011, left the program. Pelini said Klachko failed to fit the program's culture — in other words, it didn't sound like Cotton was the issue.

Moore's departure sounded that way.

Coaches and players sometimes clash. It's part of sports. Part of life. I think it's dangerous to blame Cotton for Moore leaving (or Peat signing with Stanford) without knowing particulars — not that particulars matter much in the quick-to-judge world of social media.

Thing is, vitriol from fans and media can have an impact on an assistant coach's job stability. Negativity from the outside can become debilitating for a program, perhaps even forcing a head coach to make staff changes. Ask Shawn Watson. Fan and media negativity made his return in 2011 virtually impossible.

I know ex-players who have complete confidence in Cotton. He's a knowledgeable technician with an appealing old-school style, they say. Maybe Tyler Moore disliked that style.

Perhaps Moore disliked being pushed by junior Brent Qvale for the starting job at left tackle.

Moore no doubt had a bad taste from being pulled as a starter last year in the fifth game, surrendering his spot to Marcel Jones for the rest of the season.

Critics of Cotton dislike how he frequently moves linemen from position to position. Other folks don't like the ongoing competition for playing time, saying it results in linemen playing scared. Thing is, Pelini espouses the virtues of day-to-day competition at every position.

In that regard, the 6-foot-7, 315-pound Qvale has been impressing the brass. He and Moore had been splitting time with the first string.

"Qvale has improved immensely," Cotton said. "He's having a really good camp."

Qvale is an example of a lineman who's bounced from position to position. He also has had to overcome a litany of physical ailments, most notably a bum shoulder that required surgery.

As Qvale rises, junior Andrew Rodriguez — a seven-game starter at left guard last season — is battling classmate Jeremiah Sirles (a 14-game starter in 2010) for the right tackle job. With Moore gone, redshirt freshmen tackles Givens Price and Zach Sterup suddenly become prominent in the picture.

So, experienced depth at tackle is in dangerously short supply. And Cotton is waiting for a starting center to emerge.

The question marks are sizable. But so are his linemen's hearts, Cotton said. He likes their want-to. He was upbeat Monday as he addressed a media horde.

He was asked what he most wants from his line.

"Ideally, you'd like to be physical," he said. "You'd like to be assignment-sound. And we'd like to eliminate the false starts that have plagued us."

A light affixed to a TV camera made Cotton squint as he spoke. A media horde surrounding an offensive line coach? Really? Yes, for certain, Nebraska is a unique place.

"I readily accept that responsibility," Cotton said. "I don't know what else to tell you other than that."

More than ever, he needs his line's performance to do the talking.

Reach Steven M. Sipple at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com.

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Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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