Alex Lewis, David Knevel

Nebraska offensive linemen, including Alex Lewis (71) and David Knevel (77), wait to begin stretches during team practice last August. Lewis is expected to be anchor the line this season.

There are no equal-time rules here. It's understood more words at the dinner table are spent discussing the Nebraska quarterbacks or taking best guesses at who emerges as the leading man to replace Ameer.

Even after that, you might bring up the wide receivers, with the promise of De’Mornay Pierson-El and the sure hands of Jordan Westerkamp, and the very legitimate question about who fills the void left by the departure of Kenny Bell.

And yet, taking your eye off the ball may bring you to the most heated position competition of them all when Nebraska begins spring practice Saturday.

Cast your attention to an offensive line that has 14 scholarship players: Six seniors, two juniors, three sophomores and three redshirt freshmen. That doesn’t even count the three recruits arriving this summer — Michael Decker, Christian Gaylord and consensus four-star Jalin Barnett.

Three regular starters from last year are no longer around. There’s a new coach in Mike Cavanaugh. Highly regarded prospects such as Jerald Foster, Nick Gates and Tanner Farmer now have a redshirt season under their belts. Yes, sir. Game on.

Husker head coach Mike Riley has already made clear his love of linemen.

“I would say recruiting lineman are gold,” he said on Signing Day.

He also said: “I am really excited about having an offensive line that is really good and has good depth. If you could get 10 guys who are capable of playing in the game, I have never had that before. I am going to get that sometime in my life, where you have 10 guys that you can put in the game and you know they can go win for you. The development of linemen in the program is huge.”

This spring should give NU’s young linemen plenty of opportunity to develop, especially since seniors such as Zach Sterup, Ryne Reeves and Corey Whitaker are all recovering, or limited, from various injuries suffered last season.

Left tackle Alex Lewis is the most experienced returning lineman, starting all 13 games in 2014. Next in line is the right tackle Sterup, with 10 starts. After that, the rest of Nebraska’s O-linemen have only a combined four starts — Givens Price (2), Reeves (1) and Dylan Utter (1).

In other words, nobody, save for maybe Lewis, would seem to have a firm grip on anything. And even the veterans have something to prove to a new staff.

Whether one or more from the redshirt freshman trio of Foster, Gates and Farmer can make a move this year is one of the storylines. Farmer's a strong kid. He bench-pressed 225 pounds 33 times in high school. Gates seems to possess great versatility, with the previous staff saying he could play any of the O-line positions, even center.

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And Foster, a Lincoln Southeast graduate, had the best fall of any of them, earning scout-team MVP honors in 2014.

During bowl practices, former Husker assistant Barney Cotton said Foster had "an unlimited amount of potential."

"He's got thump," Cotton added. "Some guys can push. Some guys can do certain things. But when he gets you, he has a heavy, heavy hit to him — what I call thump. With his hands, with his face. He's got that big rear end, and he can get that second foot in the ground."

There will be plenty of eyes on the second-year guys, for sure. It's promise for now.

Then there are the seniors with a final chance to make it happen: Matt Finnin, who played key snaps against Iowa and in the bowl game. Chongo Kondolo, the junior-college transfer now in his third year in the program. Price, who moved from guard to tackle last season and had some bright moments mid-year and some struggles late.

It's the group between the freshmen and seniors that will need to emerge if Nebraska is to start working toward that great depth Riley hopes to obtain.

Here are five names to keep in mind:

Dylan Utter: The junior from Papillion worked his way into a starting job at center in the bowl game. Coaches liked his toughness. Cotton called him "a junkyard dog." Probably a guard candidate, he's one of those motivated in-state kids you shouldn't overlook.

Dwayne Johnson: In his third year in the program, Johnson has yet to play. But the 6-foot-6, 285-pounder has some college experience now, and a fresh set of eyes evaluating him.

Paul Thurston: He got an education by fire when he came in against Iowa for an injured Reeves and matched up against soon-to-be NFL player Carl Davis. But Thurston survived the day. Nebraska won. That experience can only help the junior. If Reeves is out at the start of spring ball, it could be possible Thurston is first man up at center.

Zach Hannon: With Jake Cotton and Mike Moudy gone, there are two open guard spots. Hannon's a guard, and even dabbled a little at center last year once the injuries mounted. It might take a while to know what to make of that competition on the interior of the O-line. But a third-year guy such as Hannon should be full of motivation.

David Knevel: In the middle of last season, former Husker O-line coach John Garrison said of Knevel: "In two or three years we're going to be talking about him a lot." Bo Pelini's staff loved his potential. The new staff probably will, too. But now is a good time for the sophomore to make a push. Given that four of Nebraska's tackles are seniors, it's a critical development year for the big Canadian.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or bchristopherson@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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