August 18, 2011

Offensive line fighting injury bug once again

Once again, it's almost as if Nebraska is snake bitten when it comes to enduring numerous injuries on its offensive line. On Wednesday, four linemen sat out of the day's first practice with various injuries, including three of the Huskers' top tackles.

Since head coach Bo Pelini took over and even beyond, Nebraska has gone from having solid depth up front during fall camp to hoping to have enough healthy bodies in time for game day on a yearly basis.

Along with having tackles Marcel Jones, Breny Qvale and Jeremiah Sirles and center Ryne Reeves miss Wednesday's practice due to injuries, the Huskers also lost tackle Jesse Coffey to career-ending foot and hip injuries in the spring.

Last year, Jones was severely limited with ongoing back issues, which he still deals with today, and Mike Smith was lost before the season with a broken leg. Guard Brandon Thompson had to go all the way to Germany for special sports hernia surgery over the offseason as well.

Those didn't even include former guard Keith Williams and center Mike Caputo, who both fought through injuries essentially all last season.

But just like every year before when injuries start to take their toll, NU's offensive line is continuing with the philosophy that when one player goes down, another must step up.

"I don't know what it is," offensive line coach Barney Cotton said of his unit's injury problems. "So much is made of it, but it's next man up. It always has been. People say, 'Well, you're not substituting,' or whatever, you know, when you've lost two tackles before the season even starts, you know, do the math.

"You talk about depth in the summer and stuff like that, then you open camp and you lose two tackles, you know what, do the math. Our goal is always to play more than five guys, but there are circumstances out of your control that help make the decision for you."

If there were any bright side to Nebraska injury woes, it would be that its younger linemen have been thrown into the fire so to speak and forced to learn and develop faster than usual.

As a result, the Huskers at least have some depth to fill in for players like Jones, Sirles and Qvale without quite as much of a drop off.

"All the young guys are being given a serious look," Cotton said. "The three's aren't getting equal reps, but they're probably getting two-thirds of the reps our one's and two's are getting. So they're developing within our offense. We're not just having those guys be scout team guys."

For those injured linemen, having to sit out and watch while younger teammates fill their spots in practice is definitely a tough pill to swallow. Sirles already knows too well the feeling of not being able to compete in practice, as he was forced to miss all of spring ball after undergoing shoulder surgery.

"It's brutally hard," Sirles said. "That was something that no competitive player ever wants to do, just sit on the sidelines when you had the (starting) job and watch someone do your job for you… It's just so frustrating to sit there and watch, but it's a humbling experience as well to know that all it takes is one thing and your football career is over."

Pelini said Qvale, who had been working as the No. 1 right tackle, and Reeves were listed as day-to-day with their injuries. Jones has been expected to be back on the field any day all fall for some time, though that has been the case with him since last season, and Sirles could miss up to a week with his injury.

As a result, redshirt freshman Jake Cotton and true freshman Tyler Moore both took reps at right tackle. Cotton had moved to guard from tackle prior to fall camp, and Moore had taken the bulk of his reps at left tackle behind Jermarcus Hardrick.

The injury situation certainly isn't ideal, but Cotton said having to move his players around and play guys who normally wouldn't see as many reps would only help Nebraska create a deeper, more experienced unit up front.

"I think adversity is going to identify either a real competitive nature or an acceptance nature," Cotton said. "They've been very competitive throughout this fall camp… We're trying to develop depth. It's early on, and by no means are we set with our front five."

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