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Veteran Nebraska offensive line building ‘body armor’ for rigors of coming Big Ten season

Donovan Raiola likens the summer months to girding for battle. And Nebraska’s offensive line is suiting up.

The Husker O-line coach on Tuesday detailed the offseason process that produces the accessories necessary to survive a Big Ten football season. Nutrition. Conditioning. Mobility. Twenty-four large men spending copious amounts of time together every day.

Most of all? Strength, for a group of elder statesmen in position to push the NU offense — and potentially the team — toward an elusive winning season.

“For us as an offensive line, it’s just continuing to build their body armor to prepare for the chaos and noncontrolled environments,” Raiola said during an appearance on the Huskers Radio Network. “For us, power is everything. So the stronger they get, the better they’ll be.”

NU’s row of blockers is already stuffed with proven commodities. A potential starting five (left to right) of Teddy Prochazka, Turner Corcoran, Ben Scott, Micah Mazzccua and Bryce Benhart consists entirely of multi-year contributors who are all of drinking age. Justin Evans and Henry Lutovsky have already shown they can insert across the line wherever and whenever needed.

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“Those guys have really bought in and now it’s kind of like a machine,” Raiola said. “The room runs itself. We still gotta correct them and get things right every once in a while but it’s just fun watching those older guys speak up more and bring those young guys along.”

Raiola — in his third year with Nebraska and the only holdover retained by coach Matt Rhule from the previous staff — said future pros could be in the position group. Like Benhart, who took well to Rhule’s a-little-better-each-day approach — “he’ll be a lot better as well this year,” Raiola said. And Prochazka, the 6-foot-10, 325-pound junior whose frame continues to get stronger.

Evans, the No. 2 center, can also step in at left or right guard. The fifth-year Corcoran can play all five spots — “he’s a special player in that sense,” Raiola said. The 6-6, 325-pound Lutovsky is one of the strongest players on the team. Mazzccua — the former interior starter at Baylor and Florida — has “all the talent in the world” as he learns NU’s offense and standards.

Scott, who started at center last season for the Huskers after transferring from Arizona State, already has a reputation as a physically and mentally tough leader who reliably makes blocking calls.

“He has a calming effect on the guys around him and the guys in the huddle,” Raiola said. “Challenging him to keep bringing his voice out and then spreading himself out to not only the offensive line but also the rest of the offense and team.”

Depth extends down from there. Jacob Hood and Tyler Knaak — both big-bodied former Power Four transfers — continue to grow behind the scenes. Then there’s a slew of 2023 signees who redshirted including Gunnar Gottula, Sam Sledge, Jason Maciejczak, Brock Knutson and others. Plus seven true freshmen led by touted early enrollees Grant Brix and Gibson Pyle.

“That’s kind of how you’d like the offensive line room to be built up, with a bunch of veteran guys who have been through a lot of things and have a lot of experience,” Raiola said. “Then you have the younger group coming up so those older guys can set the standard, set the example for those younger guys. Then also bring them along and coach them up and get them ready for when it’s their turn. So that’s exciting.”

Linemen continue to stick together off the field too. The aim is to build brotherhood — the closer everyone is, the more trust that exists on game days — and see things with “one set of eyes.” Raiola recalled first seeing that culture at work when he was a player on the practice squad of the Chicago Bears in 2009. When center Olin Kreutz stood up to go to practice, everyone stood up and the linemen walked over together.

With a group of young and new Nebraska quarterbacks surrounded by mostly unproven skill players, Husker linemen are even more obvious standard bearers. They help QBs break huddles and with the cadence of their calls. They let their hitting talk and speak when necessary.

Raiola, the uncle of freshman and former five-star quarterback Dylan Raiola, called it a “fun little process” his nephew is working through as he learns and adjusts to the college game.

“It’s awesome, man,” Donovan Raiola said. “Dylan is a special young man and it’s just great to be around him every day. Every day is a good day for him. It’s just exciting for him watching his growth throughout spring.”

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