Steven M. Sipple: NU O-line has much to prove; special-teams talk intense; and Cook’s savvy

Nebraska offensive line coach Greg Austin claps on the sideline in the first half against Illinois in November at Memorial Stadium.

The mailbag overflows with questions. Thank you. 

So, let’s get to it.

With the conversations about how good the Nebraska tight ends and secondary are as position groups during (Wednesday’s) media session, it had me thinking. I actually feel pretty good about every single position group on the team with the exception of three — the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers. Are there other groups you would add to that list of exceptions? Would you take one of those three off that list? — Nate M.

My inclination is to remove the wide receivers from your list. I get it, though. Removing it would be a bit of a gamble. More on that in a second.

The offensive line belongs on the list. It was supposed to be a strength last season. Remember its “No excuses” credo? Turns out, it was only so-so. It certainly wasn’t a strength.

“Obviously, we didn’t meet what we wanted to be last year,” Nebraska offensive line coach Greg Austin said Wednesday. “So the thing we’re focusing on is going back to the basics, back to the fundamentals. Talking about the power running game, schematically we’re running the same things. We’re just doing it a little bit better.” 

That remains to be seen. Bottom line, Austin wants to see more production on first and second down. 

“We didn’t do a bad job on third down, particularly third down and short,” he said. “It’s just getting that ball started. It’s putting ourselves in manageable third downs.” 

Nebraska loses a pair of battle-tested veterans in left tackle Brenden Jaimes and right guard/center Matt Farniok. Their wisdom and maturity were evident. This season, the Huskers would get a significant boost if center Cameron Jurgens becomes the all-conference type of player envisioned by Scott Frost when Jurgens made the move from tight end during the fall of 2018. 

Heck, Frost actually regards Jurgens as a potential All-American. Nebraska hasn’t had a first-team All-American along its offensive line since Toniu Fonoti in 2001. That’s simply remarkable in the context of the program’s glorious past.

Jaimes was a good player, obviously. He has a good chance to make an NFL roster. But second-year freshman Turner Corcoran (6-foot-6, 295) is a star in the making at left tackle. 

As for the receiver positions, my confidence stems from two leading factors. Nebraska has done an excellent job recruiting taller receivers who possess much more catch radius than the “itty-bitty committees” of recent years. What’s more, the offseason addition of Samori Toure (6-3, 190) is critical. He’s a proven player, albeit at the FCS level. But all indications are he came to NU with a veteran’s poise to his approach. What’s more, Oliver Martin (five catches last season) could be a big surprise, and I’m bullish on Zavier Betts’ star potential. 

I could go on. Wan’Dale Robinson was an excellent player. A tough customer. But the 2021 receiver group looks different, and I strongly believe different means better. 

Sip, do you think Bill Busch is going to spend more time trying to help special teams or defensive backs? Special teams might be the key to Nebraska making a bowl game and winning close games this season. — Regg C.  

Bingo. The clear answer is special teams. According to my sources, Busch is playing a key behind-the-scenes role on special teams. Frost acknowledges Busch is helping in that area. I’m convinced he’s helping in a big way. His background in the area is extensive. I also believe his intense enthusiasm for special teams will be beneficial to the entire organization. 

What’s more, he’s a Nebraska native. This is his third stint in the program. He’ll do all he can to help the program. Whatever it takes. I think you can tell that I believe his addition to the staff is incredibly valuable. 

If Nebraska’s veteran defense is strong out of the gate, and special teams shows immediate improvement, it might give new pieces along the offensive line as well as key transfers such as Toure and running back Markese Stepp some leeway to find their groove. 

The current fan/media scrutiny on Nebraska special teams is as intense as I can remember it in 25 years of covering the program, and it makes perfect sense. It’s a critical storyline.

Have you ever eaten a Dodger Dog? — Ross M. 

So, you’ve heard. It was not a pleasurable experience. Oh, it tasted fine. This was the night before Nebraska was scheduled to play a Big 12 Tournament game at Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, home of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate.

Long story short, it had to be the dog that gave me intense food poisoning. The next day at the ballpark, I ran into former Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor. He pulled me aside and wondered if I was OK because I was sweating profusely. He remarked that I looked like Kurt Cobain, such was my obvious anguish and tousled hair. 

My hard-driving sports editor still wanted a column. In a haze, every sentence was a chore. I had little-to-no idea what I was writing.

I know, par for the course. 

Is John Cook the greatest Nebraska coach of all time in any sport? Please rank your top five. — Sean S. 

OK, the top five whom I’ve covered since I began my career in 1990 (believe it or not, I wasn’t around for Bob Devaney): 

1. Tom Osborne. He had a way of making everyone feel important. That’s just one way he kept everyone on the same page, or close to it. And have I ever mentioned he called plays for five national championship teams?

2. John Cook. Obviously, he’s a savvy recruiter. The roster seldom has gaping holes, if any holes at all. 

3. Dave Van Horn. One minute, Nebraska was scuffling in front of a few hundred die-hard fans at old Buck Beltzer Stadium. The next minute, or so it seemed, the Huskers were winning 50 games (twice under Van Horn) and reaching the College World Series (ditto).

4. Francis Allen. He led the men’s gymnastics program to eight national championships, and never seemed stressed about anything. He has an incredible sense of humor. Made it look easy, a sign of greatness. 

5. Terry Pettit. The most cerebral coach I’ve ever been around, period.

What is your opinion of our coaches saying they didn’t give max effort? I find it disturbing and ridiculous, no excuse for that. — JT 

NU tight ends coach Sean Beckton said this about the staff’s special-teams coaching: “Last year, I don’t think as a collective staff we did a great job of assisting and doing our job.”

Yep, scrutiny going forward will be intense.