LINCOLN — The offensive lineman had just finished the least enjoyable football season he could remember. His team lost games in bunches. If he wasn’t part of the worst line in program history, it felt that way.
The numbers backed up the struggles: 81.3 rushing yards per game, which ranked 127th of 128 NCAA Division I teams; and dead last at 2.7 yards per carry. Most frustrating was that the former three-star recruit and his teammates couldn’t point to why they struggled this mightily.
“We were the weakest part of the team,” the lineman said. “The best way I can say it is we were disjointed as an offensive line.”
But the player — UCF right tackle Wyatt Miller — grins as he tells the rest of the story. About how Scott Frost and his staff arrived in the offseason before the 2016 season to begin the turnaround from 0-12 to 13-0 in two years. How his position coach, Greg Austin, built a relationship with each lineman before rebuilding the unit as a whole.
“I tell you what, what Coach Austin did for us as an offensive line — and Coach Frost, too — is just made us not be afraid of failing, not being afraid of making a mistake,” Miller said a few days before UCF completed an unbeaten season by winning the Peach Bowl. “I think that made the biggest difference. He really just fine-tuned us. You say you take your car in for a checkup and they end up fine-tuning it and it runs like it never has before. He’s done a great job of that and molding us into young men.”
Now Austin is back at his alma mater at Nebraska and in the early stages of working what he hopes is a similar revival. Much of his approach will stay the same. For example, his motto — “connection before correction” — means he wants to learn about players and their families, personalities and dreams before diving into blocking technique. Each meeting will still include a life tip, like capitalizing on compound interest or the importance of making one’s bed in the morning.
But Austin lights up when discussing messages he couldn’t deliver in Orlando. An unheralded member of Nebraska’s 2003 class recruited by longtime Tom Osborne assistants Milt Tenopir and Dan Young, the Texas native embraced the Husker line tradition and eventually became a regular contributor. He knew names of former legendary Huskers at his position like Dominic Raiola, Zach Wiegert, Will Shields and Toniu Fonoti.
“This was O-Line University; we call this thing The Pipeline,” Austin said. “Well, let’s get it back there. And if we have an offensive line-dominant team — which those teams were … I guarantee we’ll be back where we need to be as a program. And it’s on us. It’s on our shoulders. It’s not on my shoulders, it’s on everybody’s shoulders in that room. And I tell them that every day, I start the meeting out with that every day. Because the standard is the standard.”
Austin quickly responds with a “hell yeah” when asked if he learned anything from the UCF transition that he can apply now. He incorporated a “movement playbook” last offseason, in which PowerPoint animations show players where their respective positions are supposed to go on a given play. These Huskers, who have never used such a tool, are incorporating it from the start.
The Scott Frost offense wasn’t second nature to the assistant coach two years ago. This spring he won’t miss a beat teaching blockers to “play between the whistles,” meaning linemen have to quickly process information and react on the field within the handful of seconds between snaps.
“These guys were a huddle operation last year,” Austin said. “They ran a play, went to huddle, probably debriefed the play, probably looked up at the board to see how well or how bad they did. Then you got the next call when the receiver came in and brought it and et cetera. Here, it’s, ‘Run a play, you don’t have time to do anything else but get your (butt) lined back up, get your (butt) to the sideline and get the signal and then be prepared to look at the defense and execute the technique and the play based on what the defensive look is.’
“So it’s a totally different routine for them and they’ve adapted to it extremely well. Repetitions is what they need.”
UCF jumped to 104th (141.2 yards per game) in rushing offense in Frost’s first year, then rocketed to 33rd (198.7) last fall. The yards per carry shot up as well, ranking 21st (5.2) in 2017.
Nebraska has work to do, coming off a campaign in which it ranked 120th nationally in rushing yards per game (107.5) and 112th on a per-carry basis (3.5). Like at UCF, the staff inherits a group with considerable experience but few positive results. Frost said the recovery process began with the past few months of strength and conditioning and will continue as players learn the offense this spring.
“I’m anxious to see them be stronger and be able to move people; I’m anxious to see them be in better shape and be able to play at a fast pace,” Frost said. “We got some athletic guys up there that Coach Austin has to work with. This system does a lot of favors for offensive linemen. The tempo that we play at helps to wear out the defense, it keeps people on their toes. We get simpler looks because it’s hard to get complicated blitzes and looks lined up if we’re going fast. There’s a lot of things that can help an offensive line, and I think those guys will learn to appreciate those things as we go forward.”
Jerald Foster, last year’s starter at left guard, said the 33-year-old Austin is spry enough to show players technique and foot patterns instead of simply telling them if they do something incorrectly. Miller said Austin taught his UCF line how to come together, using the analogy that an open hand with five spread fingers can’t be as strong as a fist when those fingers come together as one.
NU offensive coordinator Troy Walters said Austin brings a “tough love” approach that became empowering at UCF. Off the field, players did “the right things.” On it, the line gave up just 14 sacks (fifth nationally) and was a key cog in an unbeaten season.
That process is already underway in Lincoln.
“That’s what we need here,” Walters said. “It all starts up front and we gotta get back to that old Nebraska mindset of being dominant up front, setting the tempo, being nasty, physical. Coach Austin is a great guy to get that done.”