Steven M. Sipple: Even in quiet of early summer, Austin seeks ways to improve bottom line

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Friday Night Lights, 6.18

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Camp participants listen to Nebraska offensive line coach Greg Austin during the Friday Night Lights camp Friday at Memorial Stadium.

Steven M. Sipple, Parker Gabriel and Chris Basnett give some highlights from a Wednesday on the road covering Nebraska’s Big Red Blitz tour, break down the latest in Nebraska football recruiting — including recent commitments from QB Richard Torres and RB Ashton Hayes — and talk through what’s coming up this weekend and beyond for football and basketball.   

In a sense, Greg Austin captured why, in the eyes of coaches, sports can be maddening and beautiful all at once.

“Nothing’s ever going to be good enough because we can always be better,” the fourth-year Nebraska offensive line coach says.

In that regard, I suppose coaches are a bit like ketchup. There’s always going to be a need for them somewhere.

Along those lines, Nebraska coaches and players are reminded frequently on social media and elsewhere that there is plenty of room for improvement in the program.

If there’s one stat that Husker fans know by heart and recite often, it’s 12-20.

Of course, that’s fourth-year head coach Scott Frost’s record.

Austin, however, makes sure his offensive linemen always have something to feel good about. 

“Now, with the boys, they’re celebrated all the time because I do believe in every single little win. Small wins, I call them. You have to celebrate them,” he says. “You have to get those guys always hearing the positive feedback that they deserve. But then again, they also have to understand that, hey, there’s a reality that, ‘Hey, I have to get better at this, or I have to get better at that, in order to make myself into a complete player.’

“You know, we’ve had a measure of success as a line. But at the end of the day, the real success comes when you’ve won more games than you’ve lost.”  

Yes, Austin is forever mindful of the bottom line. However, in the minutes before a Big Red Blitz tour stop Wednesday in Norfolk, a reporter reminded him of some critical statistics that suggest legitimate progress by his line. For instance, Nebraska ranked second behind Ohio State among Big Ten programs in rushing yards per game (201.4) and per attempt (4.82). The Huskers allowed 2.0 sacks per game, a Frost-era low.

What’s more, as The Athletic pointed out, Nebraska was one of only seven college programs nationally with multiple offensive linemen drafted into the NFL. 

Even without departed right guard Matt Farniok and left tackle Brenden Jaimes, it seems Frost and company expect improvement up front. Of course, Nebraska fans long for the days when the Huskers dominated in the trenches. Those fans might’ve been heartened Saturday watching the energy the Husker staff poured into the “Pipeline” camp for high school linemen at Memorial Stadium. It was quite an organized production. 

Austin was in the thick of it. After all, he’s the man charged with producing a line that evokes images of Nebraska’s glory days as a program. Granted, the Huskers no longer have an offense that calls on linemen to constantly bully defenders with forward movement. Even so, a certain amount of toughness is expected at all times. 

Rest assured, Austin understands toughness. He also understands Nebraska fans’ wants and desires. He started 18 games as a guard for the Huskers from 2003-06, often playing through knee pain. Former Husker quarterback Zac Taylor once told me Austin “is legitimately one of the toughest people I know.” 

With all this talk of toughness, a natural question arises: As Frost moves deeper into his tenure at Nebraska, might he begin to lean harder on the running backs for production in the ground game as opposed to the quarterback position carrying such a heavy load? A total of six Husker running backs last season combined to run 168 times for 754 yards in eight games, a respectable average of 4.48 yards per carry. 

It becomes a question of commitment. Will Frost alter his philosophy for 2021?

“Oh, there’s always offensive philosophy tweaks,” Austin says. “I won’t say changes, but tweaks. You want to do some things better than you did well last year. You want to implement some things that you feel like will make you better.”

Makes sense.

“Wholesale changes (in 2021)? Not really,” he says. “The one thing you can’t do is just continue to change who you are. Then you end up not being good at anything. You have to continue to work on what you do and do it better, right? Do it better than you did last year and do it better than you did yesterday.” 

In that regard, Austin has a saying, and it’s a wonderful one for all of us to ponder.

“I tell the guys, ‘See a little, see a lot. See a lot, see nothing. What is the little thing you’re going to work on today that’s going to allow you to get incrementally better?'” he says. 

There’s little doubt in my mind Nebraska has an excellent offensive line coach. There’s also little doubt he’s built a deeper and more talented depth chart in his tenure at NU. He says he now has nine linemen capable of starting. The first unit coming out of spring was, from left, freshman Turner Corcoran, redshirt freshman Ethan Piper, sophomore Cameron Jurgens, junior Matt Sichterman and redshirt freshman Bryce Benhart. 

The top backups include, in no certain order, sophomore Nouredin Nouili, juniors Trent Hixson and Broc Bando, and redshirt freshmen Ezra Miller and Brant Banks. 

Austin expects his guys to make progress every day. Yes, even this time of year.

“Dude, I try to learn as much as I can, too,” the coach says.

He studies what other offensive line coaches are doing.

“Heck, Bill Callahan had a drill that he did with the Browns that I saw and thought, ‘That’s awesome,'” Austin says of the former Nebraska head coach. “We actually started doing that drill, specifically working on some things with a couple guys who were having some issues with certain techniques. There are always opportunities to get better.

“This is not some kind of through period, if you will, just to get to fall camp.”

I get it. After all, that’s no way to improve the bottom line.

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

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