Over the course of the 2018 season that must be considered a marked improvement for the Nebraska offensive line, Matt Farniok can think of moments that were downright fun.
Take, for example, rushing for 383 yards (8.9 per carry) and four touchdowns against Minnesota en route to 659 total yards and 53 points. Or four weeks later, when NU ran for 316 yards (9.3 per carry) and four scores against Illinois, piling up 54 points and 606 total yards.
For a group that spent at least the past season and a half feeling the sting of not living up to expectations — and then the frustration and pressure that came with an 0-6 start — the dam break most certainly felt rewarding.
“The first thing is, ‘This works,’ because you have to break that first wall,” said junior right tackle Matt Farniok, who helped anchor a group that jumped from No. 112 nationally in 2017 to 16th in yards per carry (3.51 to 5.41) and nearly doubled its number of rushing touchdowns to 25. “The first half of the season, something would go wrong and the wheels would fall off the cart. Second half of the season, we started rolling, started making moves, and that was such a huge confidence boost.”
It also showed where Greg Austin’s crew needs to continue to improve.
“We have to get bigger, we have to get stronger and faster,” Farniok said. “The games we (lost), we were right there neck-and-neck, and we have to get that. That’s what we’re working on now, is finding that extra step so that instead of being almost there, we are there.”
Through the spring, NU’s offensive line began the process of replacing departed two-time captain and left guard Jerald Foster and center Tanner Farmer. Sophomore walk-on Trent Hixson put a strong claim on the guard spot. Redshirt freshman Cameron Jurgens may lead at the center position, but fellow redshirt freshmen Will Farniok and AJ Forbes, plus sophomore Hunter Miller, could make it a race still.
Despite having a young middle of the line, Matt Farniok believes strongly that the group is only going to get better. There is certainly room for improvement, as NU did allow 28 sacks last season (four more than in 2017) and in some key moments struggled in short-yardage situations.
Not only that, but the current group is trending toward featuring all underclassmen. Suddenly, Farniok and bookend left tackle Brenden Jaimes are — more or less — entering their third seasons as starters. Right guard Boe Wilson stepped in ably and grew in comfort and ability as 2018 progressed.
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Foster and Farmer helped chart the transitional course. Head coach Scott Frost heaped praise on his first group of seniors for the work they did in helping establish culture and expectations.
Now, though, the returning players — and the trio of returning starters in particular — are responsible for furthering the line the next two seasons. Matt Farniok, Jaimes and Wilson, still young players themselves, will have the responsibility of bringing along not only Hixson, Jurgens and company, but also a touted group of incoming freshmen that includes tackles Bryce Benhart, Matthew Anderson and Jimmy Fritzsche, and guard Michael Lynn.
“The transition has happened fast, but at the same time, you learn from the older guys as you go,” Matt Farniok said. “We know how to lead. They got the ball rolling — all those senior guys, they were great guys and they came to work ready. They kind of showed us the example of how to be a good O-lineman, how to be a great O-lineman and the steps you have to take.
“It doesn’t even feel like that big of a hole (to fill), because they did such a great job of mentoring us and getting us prepared to be self-motivators.”
While some position groups are very much in flux, the path is relatively clear in Austin’s room. Nothing is set in stone in May, of course, and just because one group starts Week 1 in 2019 doesn’t mean it will be the same group in Week 7, let alone in 2020. But it’s a group that will be together for a long time. It's a group that has many of its pieces set and has had a number of players added to the equation quickly.
“With who we’ve got and who we’re battling with, we don’t need to worry about if (the young guys) are going to work hard, are they going to go and give the extra effort or quit?” Farniok said. “No one on this O-line is like that. We won’t allow anybody to be like that. If somebody starts to slip, somebody will hold them accountable.
“We can’t be the squad that lets up at any point, no matter what.”