On National Signing Day, much of the conversation naturally centers on the future.
Early last week, when Greg Austin finally got off the road after a two-month recruiting whirlwind, he took a good, long look at the present.
On Feb. 6, one day before Nebraska signed 11 prospects to finish with a 24-player 2018 class, Austin got to watch the Husker offensive linemen work out live for the first time since taking over in early December.
Players were three weeks into winter conditioning workouts at the time, but Austin, himself a former Husker offensive lineman, said he could already see early signs of head strength coach Zach Duval’s work.
“Usually you start seeing changes in a couple, three months, but really (Duval)’s been there for a month and you can see guys’ bodies starting to change around,” said Austin, who before last week had been relegated to mostly video scouting of last fall’s games.
Spring football will come next month with a torrent of questions about depth charts, quarterbacks, implementations, culture, energy. Name it, and it will be scrutinized. Right near the top of the list, though, is whether the new coaching staff can help drive improvement for a unit that underperformed last fall. In a 4-8 campaign, the Huskers averaged a meager 3.5 yards per carry (tied for 13th in the Big Ten), 107.5 yards per game (13th, 119th nationally) and allowed 24 sacks.
NU coach Scott Frost, in one of his most intriguing signing day statements, gave a strong indication he thinks rapid change is in store for a group that has three seniors and 14 underclassmen currently on scholarship by the Journal Star's count, including incoming freshmen Will Farniok and Willie Canty.
“I like the talent we have up front, I really do, I like the body types and the size,” Frost said. “We’ve got to change their bodies. The Nebraska I knew and the strength and conditioning and what was expected of them, and what kids look like physically. That’s not really what we’re walking back into, but that’s what Zach Duval is here for.
“I think we got guys on the team that can be great offensive linemen, but we've got to go to work in the weight room, we’ve got to cut our body fat, eat right, we’ve got to get stronger, we’ve got to get in better shape.”
The Huskers’ starting tackles from 2017’s season opener, Nick Gates and David Knevel, are gone, but everyone else is in line to return.
At first blush, the roster looks a bit light on tackles after Matt Farniok and Brenden Jaimes — Matt Sichterman, Christian Gaylord and Chris Walker are the other options — but it remains to be seen how the new staff envisions each player fitting best.
Senior Tanner Farmer is expected to move from guard to center, and center Michael Decker had left knee surgery in November, while starting left guard Jerald Foster and reserve Boe Wilson lead a group of several interior candidates.
First things first, though, for Austin, who has steps in mind for the coming weeks.
“The biggest thing for me is being around them,” he said. “Before you can ever correct a guy, you have to first connect with them, and I’m a big believer in establishing good firm relationships with anybody I coach. Before I get into the football aspect of it, it’s all about, 'Hey, I want you to know me and me get to know you.' You really invest in that relationship and from there I really believe there’s a quick turnaround.”
That work has already begun in the weight room. In Orlando, Duval’s program was known for rapid reductions in body fat and increases in muscle mass, particularly in the trenches.
“Oh, I mean, I’m expecting some pretty quick turnaround,” Austin said. “When I say that, I look at the guys at UCF when we got there and how quickly we made a turnaround. I see guys here that work just as hard or maybe even harder.”
At the same time, Austin echoed sentiments from Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters, who have outlined the ways in which mental preparation must match physical.
“In order for you to play fast — especially the guys up front — there’s a lot of things that have to happen between getting the play, seeing the defense, declaring the defense, diagnosing what they’re doing, seeing the tendencies and then being able to put yourself in the best position to execute your block,” Austin said. “All of that has to be taken into account in a matter of seconds. One of the things we’re doing right now is getting those guys thinking fast in the meeting room sessions.”
One thing is clear: Austin and Frost think improvement can also come fast.
“Not only are their bodies changing, but their mindsets are changing,” Austin said. "You change the body, you change the mind. The mind controls the body. The approach they have to the weight room, the approach they have to encouraging one another as they hit the weights and attack the weight room, that’s what I saw (Feb. 6) that gives me some good optimism as we get to spring ball and get these guys coached up from a football mindset.”