The football coach in Fremont knows to expect it. Whenever the Huskers have a brief break, he's probably going to hear from Cole Conrad.

"He asks me to let him in," said Archbishop Bergan coach Seth Mruz.

Weights are weights — whether they are housed in the palatial workout space connected to Memorial Stadium or back at the old high school.

And blocking is blocking — whether attempted by a walk-on or a scholarship guy whose recruitment was followed by fans for 14 months.

To be clear, Conrad is a scholarship guy himself this spring semester. That's a designation the fourth-year junior is trying to maintain while adding something else to his resume as a Husker: a starting job.

Conrad's end-of-spring move from tackle to center has placed him in one of the most important remaining position competitions on the Nebraska roster. It's between him and sophomore Michael Decker.

"I'll say it's a focal point," Husker coach Mike Riley said this week on his radio show of the fight for that job.

Talking about the quarterbacks or whether there's separation at running back may be more sexy, but skilled position weapons go hidden if you can't block up front.

Nebraska hasn't been dominant on the offensive line for years, was far from consistent there last year, and just finished a spring in which Riley was candid in speaking about the growth that is needed.

Veterans need to step up. So does a young center.

"As a competitor, you want to be that guy, you want to start, but at the end of the day, whatever helps the team be the best and win ballgames, that's what I want to do," Conrad said.

His position move caught many by surprise. He played in every game last year as a tackle. Most felt the competition at center was down to Decker and John Raridon. Then Riley announced a week before the Red-White Spring Game that Conrad was moving and Raridon was now at left guard.

The thinking is that while Conrad may be second in line at right tackle behind David Knevel, he just might be one of NU's top five O-linemen overall and this is a way to get him on the field.

Decker still may have something to say about that.

"I think that the best thing for those guys to know right now is that job is up for grabs," Riley said. "They are going to continue to compete as we go into the fall camp. And we are pleased with that competition.

"We think we'll grow from that competition and that we need for one of those guys to emerge, to be a real solid player, a reliable snapper, a smart guy that can make the line calls, a guy that is kind of the quarterback of the line."

Big job.

Conrad has worked at center before, earlier in his career at Nebraska. And his coach from high school, Mruz, has known the 6-foot-5, 300-pound linemen was capable of holding his own for a long time.

When Conrad was a freshman at Archbishop Bergan, he went toe-to-toe in a state championship game against an older lineman from Hastings St. Cecilia named Zach Sterup.

"Everybody around our program knew what he could do," Mruz said. "It was just a matter of time."

Some back issues in high school limited Conrad's weight-room work some at the time. He's caught up.

"That's a testament to his work, his will," Mruz said. "He's gone to town."

Conrad has always had good feet, too. He played basketball in high school and moved so well Archbishop Bergan used to design many of its running plays around him, making sure he was on the move.

They'd have him pull all the way around the line from his left tackle spot. Or he'd wrap himself inside the left guard, run up the alley and chase down linebackers.

North Dakota State was interested in him when Craig Bohl was there. Then Bohl took the Wyoming job.

"We were kind of stuck in no man's land," Mruz said.

Jeff Jamrog, former NU assistant athletic director for football operations, reached out with a walk-on opportunity.

Conrad admits there were those initial doubts during some early workouts, but teammates realized soon enough he could play.

"You could tell with him," said junior left tackle Nick Gates, who has become a close friend. "He was aggressive in the beginning. That's what we like."

Gates thinks the move to center is a good one for Conrad. He also believes Conrad would still be the next guy up at tackle if anything happened to him or Knevel.

However the Huskers line up on Sept. 2, the mission is understood. According to Gates, O-line coach Mike Cavanaugh has turned up the heat on his linemen some this year.

"Cav wants to change the mentality around here now," Gates said. "Run off the field, run on the field, be a little bit more aggressive when we're playing. He's definitely (pushed) us on to change that and we've wanted to change that as a whole, too. We're definitely trying."

Conrad mentions the roller-coaster run game Nebraska had a year ago. That won't do in 2017.

Consistency. Say it, repeat it, show it. Do the latter and Conrad could have a starting job in the fall.

Whatever happens, the high school coach is plenty proud of Conrad's climb. It's good for the town. Good for the school. Good for "an aw-shucks kind of guy" he knows will be asking to let him in the weight room soon enough.

"I'm sure he's thankful for the opportunity as a walk-on," Mruz said. "There's pressure to play scholarship guys and all that other stuff. It's a testament to the staff, too, to say, 'I don't care who you are. If you're good enough to play, you play ...'

"It means a lot to him, this opportunity. I don't think he'll let it go to waste."

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


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