There’s plenty of sunshine to go around during fall camp, especially when the subject centers on an experience-laden Nebraska offense that averaged almost 35 points a game a year ago.
But in the days just before camp began, senior offensive tackle Jeremiah Sirles was dutifully paying notice to some of the clouds.
Clouds: the turnovers. The penalties. Those times when pass protection failed the Huskers.
Those things that keep a good offense from being great.
“We left a lot of yards and points on the field,” Sirles said. “We did a lot of great things last year, but if we can cut down on the penalties and even some of the turnovers, there’s no saying what this offense can do.”
For this offense to reach its fullest heights, Sirles knows the Huskers will have to improve in the area he has put much of his personal focus into this past offseason — pass protection.
There were certainly numbers for Nebraska’s O-line to take pride in last year. Ranking eighth nationally in rushing offense (253.6 yards a game), for example.
But the "sacks allowed" stat represents the other end of the spectrum. The Huskers gave up 35 sacks in 2012. That’s 2½ a game. Nebraska ranked 90th nationally in the category.
The Huskers gave up six sacks in the Big Ten Championship. They gave up five more against Georgia in the bowl game.
It’s the stuff that happens when playing from behind against a defense running downhill. But it's also stuff Sirles wants to see a whole lot less of in 2013.
“We can run the ball, but we have to be able to protect Taylor, too,” Sirles said. “Because when he sits back there, a lot of people give him some crap for not staying in the pocket, but that’s our fault, that’s not his fault. We need to make sure he feels comfortable back there.”
“At times, we were good,” said fellow senior tackle Brent Qvale. “And then at times, we didn’t trust our sets, didn’t trust our techniques and kind of broke that.”
Of course, talking about a team’s struggles on third-and-long usually brings a coach to point out the obvious solution point.
Offensive line coach John Garrison’s best advice: Don’t get into them.
“You have to be ready for that situation, but looking at a lot of third-and-long situations throughout the country, nobody’s really good at third-and-10,” Garrison said. “We got to handle those situations, but let’s not get into those situations. That’s kind of a ‘no kidding’ statement. But that’s really what we want to do. First down, let’s gain positive ground. Second down, let’s gain half of it, and then we’re in a third-and-3 or third-and-2 situation.”
Garrison likes the group he has to try to accomplish just that.
“It seems like we say, ‘Oh, we have good depth,’ and then some injuries happen," he said. "But we do have good depth this year."
Taylor Martinez apparently sees the same reason for optimism. At Big Ten media days, the senior quarterback pointed to the line as the offense's strong suit, a comment that wasn’t missed and definitely was appreciated by the big men.
“I love that he has confidence in us,” Qvale said. “We have confidence in him.”
The added depth along the line is one big reason to have that confidence, especially with the additions of JUCO newcomers Matt Finnin (tackle) and Chongo Kondolo (guard or center).
There’s enough depth that, if possible, Garrison would like to keep from flip-flopping guys between the left and right sides.
“I'd like to keep guys on one side or the other, because I think there is something to it," he said.
Spencer Long (right) and Jake Cotton (left) are the figured top guys at the guard spots. Garrison names off Kondolo, Ryne Reeves, Mike Moudy and Givens Price as other options inside. Reeves, the coach said, “actually looks better than he did in the spring pre-(ankle) injury.”
At center, Garrison did not declare either Cole Pensick or Mark Pelini as having the upper hand.
At the tackle spots, the three seniors of Sirles, Qvale and Andrew Rodriguez are joined by Finnin as top candidates.
When Finnin arrived, Garrison wondered how the veterans would react to a new guy showing up to try to win one of their jobs.
He quickly got an answer.
"Competition is a great thing, but they've embraced him, too," Garrison said. "You kind of wondered how things would play out. Any animosity? There's none of that. It's definitely not a selfish group. This is by far one of the funnest groups I've ever been around, that I've ever played with or coached."
The 6-foot-7, 305-pound Finnin is still in the adjustment phase at playing this level of football. He's been going head-to-head with another touted JUCO newcomer, defensive end Randy Gregory.
"He’ll kind of look at me like, ‘Man, he’s fast,'" Garrison said. "But he’s going out there, he’s competing, he’s hanging, he’s doing a nice job. The big thing for him is learning the offense so it becomes second nature for him."
Developing another body there is important because Garrison wants to have enough of a rotation to keep players fresh in an uptempo offense that could take 80 snaps a game.
Seniors such as Sirles want to play as many snaps as possible. But he also understands his coach's mindset.
"Because if you have four seniors that we could have possibly starting, if you play those guys every snap, what happens next year?" Sirles said. "You can’t just build for a year. You got to build a program, you got to build a culture. And so rotating guys in and getting guys snaps is extremely important in my eyes."