There is a line that consistently winds through the history
of Nebraska football success. The 209 consecutive weeks
in The Associated Press poll, the NCAA records of 32 consecutive
winning seasons, 25 consecutive seasons with nine victories,
the 13 consecutive New Year's Day bowls.
The line is magic-marker thick. It is laid on the broad
shoulders and strong backs of the Cornhuskers' offensive
line, an assembly line of rushing yards.
Aaron Graham wanted to be part of that good ol' Nebraska
line tradition. And when the top-ranked Cornhuskers play
at Texas Tech tomorrow (7 p.m., ESPN), Graham will be the
starting center on what might be Nebraska's best offensive
line in school history.
"That's the reason I went to Nebraska, for their offensive
line tradition," said Graham, who lived in Lubbock for
12 years before moving to Denton. "There's great offensive
line tradition here and (offensive line coach) Milt Tenopir
is one of the best in the business.
"When I came on my recruiting trip, I saw that I'd be playing
with the guys on the line that are seniors. You couldn't
play with four better linemen than those guys. I knew this
would be the year when we could really make some things happen."
Graham is a 6-foot-3, 280-pound junior who started the last five games in
Nebraska's 11-1 1993 season. His linemates, all fifth-year seniors, include
tackles Rob Zatechka (6-6, 315) and Zach Wiegert (6-5, 300) and guards
Brenden Stai (6-4, 300) and Joel Wilks (6-3, 280). They are responsible for
keeping junior quarterback Tommie Frazier healthy and for creating running
room for sophomore I-back Lawrence Phillips.
"When you run behind our tackles, they get moving and they're
so big, all you have to do is follow 'em. It's great,"
said Frazier, who has his line to thank in part for his
Heisman Trophy candidacy.
"I'm surprised sometimes when I make a cut and there's a big, wide-open
hole," said Phillips, who averaged 5.5 yards per carry as a freshman. "You
wonder how they get it done."
Nebraska's Saturday block parties have produced the following numbers:
six Outland trophies (more than any school) and three Lombardi trophies.
Under coach Tom Osborne, the Cornhuskers have eight national rushing titles.
The back cover of this year's media guide features this season's linemen.
Inside, each lineman's biography has something rare for offensive linemen:
statistics. Each game, the coaching staff keeps track of how many times the
Cornhuskers knock their opponents down. That stat is called "pancakes" and
the Nebraska linemen serve more than IHOP.
Wiegert, Zatechka and Wilks are Nebraskans. It is a given that when young
boys are growing up big in the Cornhusker state, they don't dream of playing
quarterback, they dream of blocking for the quarterback.
"Actually, I wanted to play defense when I was a little kid," said
Zatechka (pronounced ZAD-ess-kuh), an academic all-America and Rhodes
Scholar candidate. "But I remember watching Dean Steinkuhler and Dave
Rimington play in the 1984 Orange Bowl. There's always been an offensive
line tradition here and that made a big impact on me when I was growing up."
This year's line averages 295 pounds, a Nebraska tradition
that is created through hours of lifting tons of iron in
the weight room. Former Nebraska quarterback and current
quarterback coach Turner Gill says that is where the linemen's
legacy is perpetuated.
"Senior guys get the younger guys in there and show what
kind of work is required," said Gill, the former Arlington
Heights standout, who took snaps from Rimington, a two-time
Outland trophy winner. "The younger guys see how the seniors
do it. It always starts in the weight room. They spend a
lot of time in there, talking and lifting together."
That is the kind of camaraderie that influenced Graham,
who made recruiting visits to Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Texas and Oklahoma.
"It really came down to wanting to play for a school with
an offensive line tradition," he said.
"My class, we have seven seniors," said Wiegert, the team's top
all-American and Outland/Lombardi candidate. "We had a really good
recruiting year. There's a lot of tradition on the offensive line. It's not
something where when you come here you see the older guys and say, `Well,
I'm going to be a good lineman because they are.' Each individual takes it
on himself to improve. It's more of a team tradition.
"The only change since I've been here is that we don't
just hope to play well and win. We expect to win. There's
a difference in confidence and determination."
Nebraska has played just once - a 31-0 victory over West
Virginia in the Kickoff Classic - but has moved from No.4
in the AP's preseason poll to No.1. Osborne, whose statements
come in 31 flavors of vanilla, has said this year's offensive
line could be the best in school history. If that's the
case, the Cornhuskers could claim the national championship
that eluded them in last season's 18-16 loss to Florida
State in the Orange Bowl.
"One thing I always look at is the offensive line as to
whether you've got a chance to challenge for the top,"
said Osborne, whose team defeated Texas Tech, 50-27, in
Lincoln last season.