ORLANDO, Fla. — Bo Pelini's already said it and sealed it, but offensive line coach Barney Cotton on Friday wanted to make an emphatic point about his tenure as Nebraska's offensive line coach. And seconds after that, center Justin Jackson, who saw his coach get riled up in the shadows of Freedom High School's metal bleachers, wanted to make a few points of his own.
But first, Cotton.
Is he winding down? Or maybe even — in the face of consistent criticism from thirtysomething fans weaned on elite line play in the 1990s — chewing on retirement?
Nope. He's all in. Plotting years into the future, setting up recruiting classes. Oh, Cotton's talking succession plans — for the three offensive tackles who depart after next season.
“Why wouldn't I be coming back?” he said when asked about message board scuttlebutt. “Hey — there's so much (stuff) out there. Message boards? First of all, I don't look at them. I have people call and tell me what they say. I really don't care what people say when they don't have guts enough to put their name on it. Does anybody put their name on it? Not one of them.
“And if they ever want to give me a holler, put their name on it, they can give me a holler in my office. I'll sit down and talk to them, no problem. Nobody's ever called me up.”
But criticism, anonymous or public, is part of job.
“It must be part of the deal, because we're criticized,” Cotton said. “But I'll tell you what: I'll put these guys, and these guys' stats — and I think stats are for losers — but these guys have proven on the field they're winners. That they can run the ball.
“We ran the ball for over 200 yards 11 out of the 13 games. I don't put a lot of mileage in stats, but these guys here? I really don't (care) about me, but don't criticize them. Because they've earned it. They've earned people's respect.”
The hackles are up because, well, none of Nebraska's coaches are particularly in love with their critics, newspaper, radio, Internet or otherwise. It's a bowl trip, supposedly a good time to relax, and I put Cotton on the spot. And, as usual, he acquitted himself forcefully.
But, more than that, this is Cotton's “favorite bunch” of linemen in 27 years of coaching. They prepared the best of any of his lines, he said. They studied film. They set a tone in practice. And the six-game winning streak, he said, proved it.
“All those games we came back in the fourth quarter?” Cotton said. “They obviously were in shape. They obviously were strong. They obviously believed. And they obviously were committed.”
Sitting on the back of a golf cart, Jackson — who broke his leg and dislocated his ankle in the Iowa game — watches Cotton. Jackson was the emotional leader of the line, a fifth-year walk-on from Roca, Neb.
“Was he yelling at you?” Jackson said after Cotton was done. “Did you (tick) him off?”
Maybe I did. But maybe it does Cotton — and Nebraska — some good to make his case with a little vinegar.
“He's my favorite coach,” Jackson said. “I love that guy. He gave me a shot.”
At center, that is. Where Jackson — who observers would tell you has been one of NU's best practice linemen for years — finally got a crack at a starting job.
“I'd break my leg for that guy,” Jackson said. “I'd go in a foxhole with him.”
Jackson's analysis during the next few minutes went like this: Cotton doesn't play favorites. If the walk-on runs faster, hits harder, prepares better, he'll get the job over the scholarship recruit.
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This year, the Huskers started three walk-ons, “a guy from Colorado (Jeremiah Sirles) and a guy from North Dakota (Brent Qvale),” Jackson said. They more than held their own. They scrapped. They didn't back down.
“There might have been five stars between all five of us,” said Jackson, referring to recruiting rankings. The other regular at tackle, junior Andrew Rodriguez, was a four-star prospect. And the lone five-star offensive line recruit in Cotton's second tenure at NU — the guy sitting next to Jackson, Baker Steinkuhler — moved to defensive line upon his arrival. That decision was out of Cotton's control.
Somebody had to develop these raw prospects. That was Jackson's point. Somebody had to see All-Big Ten potential in Spencer Long and bring it to the surface. Somebody had to channel Seung Hoon Choi's natural strength into a consistency. Somebody had to give Jackson his shot. And that, Jackson said, was Cotton and assistant offensive line coach John Garrison.
They'll get the most interesting test of the season against Georgia's front seven. It's in many ways, good and bad, all the things that Nebraska's offensive line is not. The Bulldogs have NFL talent to burn and the biggest collection of giant linemen and linebackers that I've seen on a college football team. But aside from linebacker Jarvis Jones, they often burn it with dumb off-the-field mistakes or poor on-the-field execution.
NU's line is sound and crafty, but challenged against great pass rushers. Alabama couldn't keep Jones from notching two sacks. I'm not sure how the Huskers will.
Cotton calls this unit “another building step” in the evolution of his line. Which prompts this critique and question: Shouldn't all the pieces be in place after five years?
“I don't know if it's in place for anybody,” Cotton said. “You can look back 25 to 30 years in this program and there were better lines and not as good of lines. Ideally, every year you get better and better and better and better and better and better and better. But that means, at some point, you win a national championship every year. Are we there yet? No ... but we're on the right step.”
Critics emailing me point to the departure of two highly touted recruits from the 2011 class — Tyler Moore transferred to Florida while Ryan Klachko transferred to Illinois and retired shortly thereafter — that Cotton can't reach the best prospects. His supporters — who include Jackson — point to the production of this overachieving bunch as proof that Cotton knows his stuff. Pelini's in the latter group.
Until Tim Beck's right-hand man — and don't kid yourself, he is — crafts a line with talent, strength, speed and effort reminiscent of Milt Tenopir's finest Pipeline products, Cotton knows: The pressure is there. He feels it. The players feel it. It's a quirk of this particular program, that fans and pundits would care so much about the line. But Cotton signed up for it. And he's not getting off the ride.
“If you go to a program with tradition, you're not only playing for yourself, you're playing for the guys before you,” Cotton said. “And I'm coaching for the guys who coached before me. And if you're any kind of competitor, that's how you're built. That's exactly the way our culture is set up.”
On with the Rewind.
I see you
>> Running back Ameer Abdullah: Against Georgia, I expect to see the midseason Abdullah, who pounded out tough yards vs. Michigan. Not the tired legs from the end of the season.
>> Linebacker Thomas Brown: Coaches love his playmaking ability on scout team. Turn loose the kid in the spring.
>> Georgia nose tackle Kwame Geathers: A giant human being. Nebraska has to control him to win.
>> Georgia linebacker Jones: He'll get his Tuesday regardless of what his teammates do.
>> Quarterback Taylor Martinez: He's 0-4 in conference title games and bowl games combined. He didn't play great in any of them. I suspect he's hungry for Tuesday.
>> Running back Rex Burkhead: It's not his offense anymore. It's Martinez's attack. But maybe Burkhead has one more hour in the Orlando sun.
>> Safeties Daimion Stafford and P.J. Smith: The two guys who must play well on Nebraska's defense Tuesday. Georgia wants to attack with a downfield passing game, and do it with Aaron Murray's play-action fakes. How Murray manipulates Smith and Stafford — or doesn't — may determine how well the Huskers play on defense.
>> Georgia's combination of size and speed: The film tells the story on the Bulldogs' speed. Several trips to practice tell the story on their size. This is an SEC roster, and no, there isn't one quite like it in the Big Ten.
>> Red zone execution: Georgia's red zone defense — No. 13 nationally with 20 touchdowns in 42 opponent trips inside the Bulldogs' 20-yard line — will be a challenge for Beck, who is still perfecting his approach in goal-line situations.
>> Turnover margin: History suggests Nebraska will lose the turnover battle to Georgia.
>> Did Beck deserve a raise? Yes, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's significant. Missouri just promoted 37-year-old Josh Henson — who's never called a play in college — to coordinator with a $500,000 salary. Arkansas will pay $550,000 to its new coordinator, Jim Chaney. Beck, hovering around the $350,000 range, was due for a big bump once his offense produced this year. I expect it to produce even bigger numbers next year.
>> Should the Big Ten consider pulling out of the Capital One Bowl? I vote yes, and maybe I'm being harsh on a place I've visited twice in roughly 12 months. The Citrus Bowl is supposed to undergo a $175 million renovation starting in January 2014, but it's relatively dumpy now, and in a neighborhood that you don't want to explore. (Since I had to do that last year, at 1 a.m., looking for a cab, trust me on this.)
Moreover, Orlando annually hosts 52 million visitors, and it just doesn't raise its eyebrows for this game; there is little-to-no civic excitement for it. If fans are going to pay thousands to travel somewhere for a game, shouldn't they be the most important game in town?
>> What's a good Big Ten goal for Tim Miles and Nebraska basketball? In the nation's best basketball league, NU could finish with a 6-12 conference record — 15-16 overall — and Husker hoopheads I know would be perfectly satisfied.
>> 2,754: Rushing yards for Husker recruit Adam Taylor in his senior season at Katy (Texas) High School. He scored 44 touchdowns. Has any Husker recruit had a better single season? If you know, shoot me an email.
>> 1,577: Points scored by Nebraska guard Tyronn Lue in his Husker career. Lue will be inducted into NU's Basketball Hall of Fame on Feb. 16.
>> Eight: Big Ten players named to the main (not alternate) Pro Bowl rosters. None of them were Huskers. The SEC had 17.
You've read enough about Georgia to get an honorary milk bone. A quick thought: I think the Bulldogs' offense will be motivated — because their quarterback Murray is motivated, wants to win and maybe put on a good show for potential NFL scouts. I actually wonder about the Bulldogs' defense, though. Chemistry is not its strong suit, and if Georgia plays its man-to-man pass defense, it'll open up opportunities for Martinez to run.
Football weather — to the chagrin of fans hoping for the heat.
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