The question not asked, but probably should have been, How many burnt ends does it take to feed an entire offensive line?

Just something the mind pondered when Mike Cavanaugh sent out a tweet April 8 of him with his guys in his backyard, in the midst of what appeared to be a very successful O-line barbecue.

Nebraska's offensive line coach loves those moments.

If he presents that gruff personality straight out of central casting for an O-line coach on the field, or shows irritation when asked about that drumbeat topic of rotating linemen (more on that later), he is just as much the guy who loves to shoot the bull with players when the day's work is done.

"I have a different personality on the field than off," Cavanaugh said by phone while on the road recruiting this week. "I love when my guys come into my office and we just talk. There's a different side. Sometimes it's football, but sometimes it's life. And the life part is huge. Your kids got to know that you care about them. That they're just not another football player. One thing I like is that I develop relationships with the kids off the field, and that means a lot to me. We are teachers."

Those relationships are a lot further along with Husker players than they were a year ago.

It is a deepened connection both Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer, the favorites to start at the guard spots, brought up this spring. That chemistry off the field can help on it.

"I've been able to bond with him a lot better. It's helped a lot. … I'm loving it," Farmer said then. "I just want to keep on going this way."

More blunt conversations these days?

"Absolutely," Cavanaugh said. "Last year was transition and I told them flat-out, 'You don't know who the hell I am and it's going to take time to trust me.' But I think the teaching and the developing went on and they saw how guys got better and better, obviously they buy in."

One of the close friends he's gained since coming to Nebraska in December of 2014 is former Husker O-line coach Milt Tenopir.

Cavanaugh and Tenopir talk shop when they can. About everything from technique to walk-on recruiting to how Tenopir rotated his linemen. He didn't do it as much in close games as perhaps some remember. "We did it the same way (as Cavanaugh)," Tenopir said. "We just got ahead in so many games where we had the luxury of playing other kids."

But it's the technical teachings of Cavanaugh that just as much interest someone who was as successful in his craft as Tenopir.

"He's cut-and-dried techniquewise," Tenopir said. "He's got his way of teaching things and it's the right way. He's doing things that might be a little different than what we taught, but it's basically the same principle — getting after them. I like his demeanor. I like the fact that he pushes them and pushes them. His group periods are pretty rugged. They're tougher than our group (periods) were. … I just like the man and the way he coaches the game."

Tenopir is excited to see what Cavanaugh does with an O-line group that while inexperienced — only Nick Gates and Dylan Utter have started — could have a bigger upside than last year's line if potential is tapped.

Tenopir watched tape of the Spring Game a couple of weeks ago. "There's a lot more aggressiveness up front. Just fun to watch. He's got more strength up there than he had last year. Got some young kids, but those kids will play for him, I know that."

Cavanaugh doesn't hide his eagerness about what's ahead:

* He notes the physical nature guards like Foster and Farmer showed this spring. "I think they've decided that this is important to them, that they want to be the best that they can be. I'm excited about their future."

* Gates' move to left tackle was as smooth as he hoped, giving him a left-side combo of Gates and Foster that he's hopeful can take off. "I like the swagger that Nick Gates and Jerald Foster bring, real confident, and they're tough guys."

* He thinks the senior Utter's move to center will be good for him. "He loves what he does."

* And while junior David Knevel has played limited meaningful snaps, Cavanaugh said he's upbeat about him at right tackle. "He's paid his time and I think he realizes this is a great opportunity for him. Thought he had good spring. I expect greatness."

* Behind the top five, senior Corey Whitaker could be valuable as a guard or tackle. Guys who need to keep growing to strengthen depth: redshirt freshmen Michael Decker, Jalin Barnett and Christian Gaylord.

"They've got to be a group that has a great offseason in the summertime, lifting and conditioning and understanding the offense, and becoming much more students of the game," Cavanaugh said.

Add to it that in a couple of weeks the coach will welcome four 2016 recruits into his room: Matt Farniok, John Raridon, Boe Wilson and Bryan Brokop."They're all tough guys that are coming in. They've got a great bond together, those four guys. They're all going to live together."

On paper, it seemed a most successful first recruiting haul for Cavanaugh at Nebraska.

He's also got two of the nine commitments lined up for NU's 2017 class, with Brenden Jaimes (Austin, Texas) and Matt Sichterman (King's Mill, Ohio) on board.

This week, Cavanaugh was recruiting in Omaha on Monday, in Colorado on Tuesday morning, in Arizona on Tuesday afternoon, in Southern California on Wednesday and in Washington on Thursday.

Key traits he looks for in recruits: Quick feet/balance, toughness, smarts. Analyzing a recruit is much more than just watching 10 minutes of a guy's Hudl film.

"I like to look at is how's a guy finishing blocks," Cavanaugh said. "We don't look at just highlight films. We watch the highlight film and then we watch a couple games. … That's the truth serum. A guy can look all-world on a highlight, then you watch him on the game film and he's on the ground. Obviously, the kid didn't put that on there."

For the linemen he already has on campus, much work remains. A big part includes building a more consistent running attack. A year ago NU finished 44th in average yards per rush (4.72).

Not the worst, but there were struggles, like against Northwestern, when Nebraska finished with 82 yards on 38 carries. Or BYU, when the Huskers failed on three third-and-shorts in the fourth quarter.

Before his players left for a break in May, Cavanaugh's message was simple enough: "Let's go to work. We've got a frickin' grind ahead."

A grind the O-line coach relishes.

Cavanaugh said after taking the job it took awhile to actually believe where he was.

"I wake up in the Embassy Suites and I go, ‘Am I in Nebraska right now?’" It felt good.

He was halfway between Bradenton and Tampa on a Florida recruiting trip for Oregon State when Mike Riley called and asked about coming to Lincoln.

"Heck, yeah, I'm coming to Lincoln," he told Riley.

That simple?

"Oh, yeah. That simple."

He knew it was a job with plenty of attention on it. More than 10 reporters might gather around him after a practice now to talk about left guard. It's a place where O-line talk never runs out of style.

Works for him.

"We're at a place with great expectations," he said. "We have those great expectations, too."

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


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