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Illinois at Nebraska, 11/10/18

Offensive lineman Trent Hixson warms up before the Huskers' game against Illinois on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

There’s no easy way to win a starting offensive line job in the Big Ten.

Some guys wait for three or four years for a shot, while others might see the field early and then switch positions or get passed up or get hurt and never find themselves back in their old jobs.

Given that, the fact that sophomore walk-on Trent Hixson is making a strong run at the starting left guard job for Nebraska is equal parts impressive and improbable.

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Head coach Scott Frost said Thursday night on the Husker Sports Nightly radio program that Hixson would start at guard if NU played right now and that he's a testament to the school's growing walk-on program. 

"He's got to keep battling and earn it, but he's done a really good job," Frost said, adding Hixson is among the top candidates for a scholarship among the walk-ons. 

In the meantime, Hixson set about finding his way past several scholarship players on the depth chart to play almost exclusively with the top group as the spring wore on.

That’s hard enough as it is. As an interior offensive lineman, the Omaha Skutt Catholic graduate has been playing largely against the likes of senior graduate transfer Darrion Daniels, who has earned a reputation as a leader and a disruptor in the defensive line group.

Much has been said about the effect Daniels has had on the lineman on his side of the ball. He’s also had an impact on Hixson.

“Every day, he picks out something that I beat him on, then the next day it won't work,” Daniels said of his sparring with Hixson. “That's one thing that proves how great he is. He'll find one thing I'm really good at and he'll work on stopping it.

“It makes me go in my bag deeper, it makes me better with him coming after my best moves and stopping them."

Daniels told that story when he was asked if any of the offensive lineman give him all or more than he can handle. That’s high praise, right? Well, ask around and it quickly becomes clear that it wasn’t all just rosy for the young offensive lineman this spring.

“We have a veteran defensive line, so we’re putting it on them every day, making them work,” senior Khalil Davis said after the spring game, as the beginnings of a smile creasing across his face. “Trent, there’s been some hard days for him.”

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There’s still much to sort out on the offensive line for the Huskers this summer. It’s possible they explore the graduate transfer market. It’s possible a young tackle — incoming freshman Bryce Benhart is the most logical candidate, but not the only one — emerges to a point where the line gets shuffled and Hixson is back fighting for a spot. The sophomore has to stay healthy and continue improving. But offensive line coach Greg Austin made it pretty clear earlier in the spring that he has serious appreciation for Hixson’s demeanor.

“He plays with his hair on fire,” Austin said. “There’s always going to be technique things that you’re working on. Always. The hardest thing to coach is effort. Really, it’s like speed. You can’t make a 4.2 guy out of a 4.9 guy. I can’t make a guy play with way, way, way more effort than he normally plays with. Now, I can stay on his ass about being consistent and his technique needs to be consistent and all that stuff.

“But, generally speaking, if you get a guy that plays with high effort and high intensity, then you’re half of the way there.”

It’s the same kind of approach that will help a young guy through long days against a bunch of seniors who have fun making your life miserable. It’s the same thing that might help a walk-on in his second year of college ball win a job on a Big Ten line.

“He didn’t quit, he never quit, he kept playing and he got better (every) day,” Davis said of Hixson. “It’s like (Austin) says all the time, iron sharpens iron. We’re trying to make them better, they’re trying to make us better. It’s been pretty fun.”

Contact the writer at pgabriel@journalstar.com or 402-473-7439. On Twitter @HuskerExtraPG.

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Sports writer

Parker joined the Journal Star as the University of Nebraska football beat writer in August 2017. He previously covered Montana State athletics for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2012.

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