JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The scout team defense was showing blitz just before a snap during Saturday's practice, and one of Nebraska's veteran offensive linemen yelled at the quarterback to help the unit check into the correct blocking scheme.
But by the time Tommy Armstrong stepped out of the shotgun and reached the line of scrimmage, the four seniors and one junior on the O-line had it figured out.
That's typically what happens when an experienced group reunites.
“We know where we're sliding and he knows where he's throwing — and it's fun when it's like that,” senior tackle Jeremiah Sirles said.
The unit's chemistry and continuity have apparently been evident over the last few weeks as it has returned to near full strength. That efficient blitz pickup during Saturday's practice was just one example.
The Huskers' banged-up linemen are finally healthy again, and they're picking up right where they left off.
“We don't feel hampered anymore,” Sirles said. “We don't feel like we're out there just trying to survive. We're out there contributing. We're out there getting better.”
It's been awhile since he could say that. Sirles admitted that he was limited in practice toward the end of the season.
Senior tackle Brent Qvale said he missed most practice time before the Iowa matchup. Senior center Cole Pensick, junior guard Jake Cotton and junior guard Mike Moudy all had to sit out game action because of injuries.
Scout teamers were called up to take reps with the top offense during Nebraska's stretch run. Players who hadn't played in a game were taking practice snaps on the offensive line.
Meanwhile, the veterans were trying to fight through the pain. They were worried about protecting their injuries, staying healthy and setting good examples of toughness.
“I just didn't want my team to think I was taking the easy way out,” Sirles said.
Now players feel revived, and you can tell in practice. I-back Imani Cross said the linemen were “very vocal” Saturday, “doing a lot of great things.”
Qvale and Sirles are expected to play the majority of Wednesday's Gator Bowl at the tackle spots. Pensick will likely start at center. Senior Andrew Rodriguez could start at right guard, with Cotton filling the left guard spot. Moudy says he's built his strength back up after a shoulder injury and will presumably factor in as well.
Backup center Mark Pelini and reserve tackle Zach Sterup may end up seeing their roles decrease. But that shouldn't take away from their contributions this year, Qvale said.
“Those guys did a good job stepping up when we needed them,” Qvale said. “And now as we've got these other guys back who are healthy, it's good to get them back in the rotation.”
Senior guard Spencer Long will still have to watch from the sideline Wednesday, but Qvale said the hope is that NU's offensive line will again perform at the level it did to start the year.
The Huskers averaged 291.6 rushing yards per game during the season's first five weeks. They gave up just two sacks on 131 pass attempts.
“It's good to have everyone back,” Qvale said. “Hopefully that leads us to executing like we were at the beginning of the year and really come out and have a solid bowl game.”
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Video: Nebraska practices Saturday
Video: Ameer Abdullah after practice Saturday
Video: Tommy Armstrong after practice Saturday