It may seem blasphemous to suggest that Devine Ozigbo or Stanley Morgan Jr. aren’t the obvious choices to hold the mantle of Nebraska's 2018 offensive MVP. How can you possibly deny the first 1,000-yard running back in four years or the first 1,000-yard receiver in school history that honor, right? This is where we get into the value of offensive linemen.
Big Red fans are familiar with the benefits that good line play affords a team. Nebraska didn't end up having an award for FBS' best center named after an alum by chance. The Big Red has to replace two veteran players in Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer, but surely they can't be that relevant to the Huskers' offensive successes last year, right? Wrong. Farmer is actually the most significant piece of the puzzle Scott Frost will have to replace. Here's why:
While Ozigbo's and Morgan's efforts were incredible and should be lauded, a skill player is only as good as their offensive linemen. With a poor starting five up front, Adrian Martinez doesn't have time to set his feet, let alone make proper reads or accurately determine when to tuck the football and go. Meanwhile, Ozigbo gets hit in the backfield and stopped for minimal gain, maybe even a loss, and Morgan has to bail out rushed or poorer throws.
More specifically, this conversation is about points. The people — or person — who helped Nebraska rack up most of the 360 the Huskers scored last season, that is. Out of 424 plays that comprised the Huskers' scoring drives in 2018, three linemen were on the field for 412 of them — Brendan Jaimes, the aforementioned Foster, and Matt Farniok. The only time they weren't in on the fun was during bench-clearing efforts versus Michigan and FCS opponent Bethune-Cookman.
As a result, those three helped generate .839 points per play on every drive they were a part of which resulted in a score. Cole Conrad and Farmer would begin completing the original starting cast versus Colorado. However, an injury to Conrad during the game saw Farmer take over at center periodically as he moved from his right guard spot. Then-sophomore Boe Wilson would step in to fill Farmer's shoes and the seeds were sown for the eventual starting five come season's end. Following a 42-28 loss to Purdue, Conrad wouldn’t see time on another scoring drive until well into Nebraska’s game versus the Wildcats from the FCS ranks.
Wilson actually played the second-most snaps behind Jaimes, Foster, and Farniok with 376 and generated more points per play at .840. Considering Nebraska returns three of those four minus Foster, this bodes well for the future. Interestingly, Farmer ended up playing just one fewer play than Wilson, but the numbers show his impact was significantly greater overall. He would still be a part of one lineup or another that scored 325 points which means his PPP average is a whopping .866. Despite being in on 37 fewer plays than Jaimes, Foster or Farniok, he actually provided a bigger offensive boost than Wilson (an additional .027 versus .001). That doesn't sound like much, but consider the drop in effectiveness between Wilson and Conrad (.840 versus .810).
This means a starting five of Jaimes, Foster, Farmer, Wilson, and Farniok (from left to right) resulted in .844 PPP versus a starting five of Jaimes, Foster, Conrad, Wilson and Farniok chalking up .833 PPP. If you substitute Farmer for Wilson in the latter lineup — running what Frost originally intended versus Colorado — you get a group that produces .836 PPP. Bottom line: Farmer meant more points on the scoreboard.
As a final emphasis, Farmer's versatility only underscores why any coach worth their salt diligently works to have players who are interchangeable at various spots on the offensive line. The good news is that Nebraska already has a known quantity like this on their roster in Farniok. In fact, he may very well be the one to take over where Farmer left off in terms of offensive efficiency. While he was the Huskers' right tackle in 2018, his potential isn’t maxed out at that spot. His frame and arm length are ideal for an interior spot where he likely starts the 2019 season thanks to the emergence of Christian Gaylord in the spring and depth provided by incoming freshman Bryce Benhart.
In the meantime, offensive line coach Greg Austin has a tall task ahead of him in not only finding an efficient starting five for the 2019 season but cultivating depth allowing for another Farmer-type player to emerge, if not two or more. When this happens, Nebraska fans can truly proclaim the long-cherished "Pipeline" to be back. The scoreboard will clearly reflect it.
— Written by Brandon Cavanaugh, FWAA member and part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Be sure to follow him on Twitter (@eightlaces) and enjoy the Eight Laces podcast. To contact him with tips, story ideas or for interview purposes, click here.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)