Once upon a time, the prospect of Nebraska losing an interior offensive lineman for the season might not even make you bat an eye. Some other burly, cornfed Cornhusker who would be starting anywhere else in the Big 8 or Big 12 would move into the lineup.

Maybe the Huskers would drop from 315 rushing yards per game to 312, but the machine rolled on.

As every Cornhusker fan is well aware, we no longer live in such times. Thus, replacing starting left guard Nouredin Nouili will prove a major obstacle for Scott Frost in a season where he can scarcely afford them. Nouili is suspended for the entire 2022 season due to a positive drug test.

Everybody has said the right things about the issue. Nouili released an apology. Frost offered his full support, saying, “He is an outstanding young man who made a mistake… we look forward to him resuming his playing career in 2023.”

But Nouili’s absence makes it a lot less certain that Frost will still be the coach at that time.

Last season, Nebraska’s offensive line was inconsistent at best and flat-out bad at worst. There were 2 exceptions to that shoddy play — Nouili and center Cam Jurgens. Now the Huskers have neither.

Jurgens was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2nd round. Nouili, who entered the starting lineup against Northwestern in Week 6, was the only other Huskers o-lineman to receive positive grades from Pro Football Focus last season. As a whole, the unit was rated 126th out of 130 in the FBS.

That ineptitude is why new offensive line coach Donovan Raiola was among the many offseason changes Frost made to his coaching staff. And now Raiola must immediately earn his keep.

Donovan Raiola’s challenge

Raiola was already facing a heck of a challenge when he accepted the job. Chief among them is his own lack of experience running the show.

Raiola has spent just 3 seasons as an offensive line coach. In 2017, he coached the offensive line for Division III Aurora (Ill.) University. He also spent 2 years coaching the offensive line for a Hawaiian high school in 2012-13.

It’s not as if he’s new to the subject matter. Raiola played at Wisconsin and spent parts of 5 seasons in the NFL. He was a grad assistant for Brian Kelly at Notre Dame from 2015-16, and an assistant O-line coach for the Chicago Bears from 2018-21.

But taking over at his brother’s alma mater is certainly his biggest career assignment by a wide margin. That would be true even if he wasn’t inheriting a bit of a mess. Which he is.

Nebraska allowed 2.42 sacks per game last season, which ranked 82nd nationally. The Huskers also permitted 5.5 tackles for loss per game, which was a better but not great 51st in the country.

So that is the backdrop under which he must find a replacement for his best returning player.

Nebraska’s options to replace Nouredin Nouili

If there’s any way to put a bright spot on Nebraska’s blocking struggles, it’s that quite a few guys have gotten reps. And if any of them have improved under Raiola’s brief tutelage, then perhaps the concerns over Nouili’s suspension will prove overstated.

  • Ethan Piper: The redshirt sophomore was the starter last year before Nouili took over midseason. Piper was the No. 2 center on the depth chart for Nebraska during spring practice, but is certainly a candidate to move back to his former position.
  • Broc Bando: Bando started at right guard during Nebraska’s spring game. It seems likely the coaching staff would prefer to keep him on that side, but you never know how things really look in practice. It could be that Bando is easier to replace on the right side than Nouili is on the left side.
  • Kevin Williams Jr.: A sleeper candidate to be the unexpected savior of Nebraska’s O-line in 2022. Williams, an Omaha native, played 4 seasons at FCS Northern Colorado before coming home as a grad transfer. He started at left guard in 2019, then sat out 2020 as Northern Colorado canceled the season. Williams was a left tackle before a season-ending injury last year.
  • Turner Corcoran: Corcoran did not practice this spring due to surgery. Corcoran started 9 games at left tackle and 2 at right tackle last season, but was often a liability in pass blocking. Given his strength as a run blocker, a move inside would make sense.
  • Henry Lutovsky: Lutovsky played in garbage time against Fordham and Northwestern as a true freshman last season, which allowed him to keep his redshirt. In recruitment, Rivals rated him the No. 13 offensive guard in the Class of 2020. It seems likely Frost and Raiola will give him every chance to prove how ready he is in August camp.

Nervousness was warranted over Nebraska’s offensive line before news of Nouili’s suspension broke. Now it might be something closer to panic in Lincoln. And no one will feel that more than Frost and his rookie o-line coach.