Will Shields didn't have extreme highs and lows, according to Milt Tenopir.

Shields was "a very, very, very steady football player," Tenopir, the former Nebraska offensive line coach, told me Saturday from Canton, Ohio, where Shields was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Shields possessed another quality that's common among gridiron greats.

"He had an ornery streak. He could be mean," Tenopir said. "But it was a controlled mean streak."

Saturday was a wonderful day for Nebraska's esteemed offensive line tradition. Former Husker center Mick Tingelhoff (1959-61) also was inducted into the Hall of Fame. I wonder if new NU offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh — who quickly formed a bond with Tenopir — spoke to his linemen about Shields and Tingelhoff. About the Pipeline days.

The two ex-Husker greats were ironmen. They found ways to not only endure, but to excel. Much of it came down to sheer toughness and willingness to brawl week in and week out. They found an edge, or edges. Whatever it took.

Cavanaugh's group is without star power. There isn't a surefire All-Big Ten lineman in the bunch. It's not particularly big or athletic. So, it had better be ornery and thick as thieves. It had better find an edge or two. The linemen had better perform cohesively and consistently lest Nebraska's streak of seasons without a conference championship stretch to 16.

Here's the rub: If Nebraska really does evolve into more of a pro-style offense, as expected, then strong and sound offensive line play will become that much more important. For instance, we'll likely see fewer instances of slide protection on pass plays. The tackles more often will be in one-on-one blocking situations. May the best man win. The running game often will move downhill more quickly, meaning greater emphasis on techniques and sheer toughness. Think Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin.

Thing is, according to Athlon's preseason unit rankings, Michigan State has the top-rated offensive line in the Big Ten, Ohio State is second and Wisconsin is third. In Lindy's rankings, Ohio State is first, followed by Michigan State and Wisconsin.

Nebraska's line is seventh in both rankings. Minnesota is fourth and sixth. The obvious question: If the Husker offensive line really is no better than a middle-of-the-pack unit, can NU be expected to end its conference-title drought, especially without Ameer Abdullah creating his own running room? It's a valid question.

Can Nebraska even be expected to overcome Wisconsin (and perhaps Minnesota) in the West Division?

Maybe doubters will fuel the Husker big men's fire. Put a chip on their broad shoulders.

Bottom line, it's difficult to win big in any conference without strong offensive line play, but especially in the rugged Big Ten.

"You have great big linebackers in our league, and you have those huge three-techniques," said Nebraska senior center Ryne Reeves. "You have to be able to play physical football."

As Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio said July 30 during Big Ten Media Days, regarding his offensive line (which returns four starters): "It's built on toughness. And if you know football, winning and losing, it all starts up front, and it's going to start with our offensive line."

Ohio State, the landslide favorite to win the Big Ten East, also returns four starters on the offensive line. It almost seems unfair. Wisconsin, the most popular pick in the West, has an O-line with only two returning starters, yet still will be "typically salty and, needless to say, utterly massive," according to Lindy's.

Nebraska began its first practice of preseason camp Thursday night with almost the same first-string offensive line we saw in the April 11 Red-White Spring Game: Alex Lewis at left tackle, Dylan Utter at left guard, Paul Thurston at center, Chongo Kondolo at right guard and Zach Sterup at right tackle. Givens Price started the spring game at right tackle as Sterup was recovering from knee surgery. So was Reeves.

Utter, arguably the most ornery of the entire bunch, has one career start, while Kondolo and Thurston have none.

Lewis, who started every game last season, and Kondolo are virtual locks to start. But competition across the board is ongoing. Price could move inside to guard, though keep a close eye on Jerald Foster, a redshirt freshman from Lincoln Southeast. He will soon begin to make his mark at guard. And he isn't the only talented young lineman in the system.

Never mind the future, though. Nebraska is a legitimate contender to win its division, question marks notwithstanding. The offensive line is just one of them. More than anything, Lewis said, it needs to be more consistent.

It also needs to be more nasty — anything to provide an edge.

Tenopir, who coached the Nebraska offensive line for nearly three decades, saw plenty of controlled nastiness over the years. He seems confident Cavanaugh can draw plenty of it out of his guys.

"He coaches a lot like I did — a little grumpy, but he gets his point across," Tenopir said. "He'll get 'em going."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.


Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

Load comments