LINCOLN, Neb. — Greg Austin will never forget his first few days at Central Florida in early 2016. UCF was coming off an 0-12 season when coach Scott Frost and his staff arrived, and Austin was tasked with restoring a broken offensive line.
The numbers were rough. UCF rushed for only 81.3 yards per game in 2015, ranking 127th out of 128 FBS teams. The Knights’ 2.7 yards per carry was even worse, placing the team last in the country.
Yet, Austin wasn’t as concerned with statistics. What did concern him was that his players were fragmented. As meetings would come to a close, players would leave without hardly saying a word to one another.
Austin quickly saw what he had to do. When it came to restoring UCF’s issues on the field, everything off the field needed to be addressed first.
“The biggest job that we did — and it wasn’t just me but the whole coaching staff — was to make them a more cohesive bunch,” Austin told Land of 10. “It started first and foremost off the field and how to relate to one another and being around one another and wanting to be around one another. Your connectivity off the field really spills over to your on-the-field connectivity. They really needed to be brothers again.”
Austin became the “glue” that held the UCF offensive line together. He worked to instill accountability while breaking down the cliques that existed upon his arrival.
For Austin, that’s where “the magic” began.
Sept. 10, 2016.
That’s the day Nebraska quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco remembers understanding Austin’s impact as a coach. Don’t get Verduzco wrong, because he already knew Austin was one of the best offensive line coaches in the country. That day in early September only solidified his opinion.
UCF was in Ann Arbor, Mich., to face Michigan at the Big House. Austin understood where his group was after an 0-12 season, but that didn’t stop him from setting big goals. He believed in what he was doing and the Knights offensive line followed suit.
That’s when the magic resurfaced.
Michigan won by a lot — 51-14 — but UCF showed glimpses of what was possible. Removing the 4 sacks Austin’s group allowed that day, UCF ran for 312 yards against the Wolverines. That included an 87-yard touchdown run by freshman Adrian Killins and a 34-yard run by senior running back Dontravious Wilson. Even with UCF’s sacks included, the Knights ran the ball for 275 yards against Michigan and averaged 6 yards per carry.
According to Pro Football Focus’ database, UCF’s 2016 offensive line allowed only 17 sacks on 471 dropbacks. That was the fifth-lowest in the American Athletic Conference. One year later? The Knights allowed only 4 sacks on 340 dropbacks through 10 contests, topping the AAC.
So what’s Austin’s secret?
“He knows exactly what he’s doing,” Verduzco said. “He’s just as good of a line coach as any other in the country. The way he handles his players from a psychological standpoint, a cognitive standpoint in terms of what they want to know, he’s a master at that. He’s always very positive but always at the same time able to make those guys understand just how critical their job is from snap to snap.”
Austin is in a bit of a different situation at Nebraska than he was at UCF. The Huskers offensive line was a brotherhood upon his arrival. The group was hanging out together in their free time and hosting barbecues.
That brotherhood has its own unique set of challenges, though.
“Sometimes it’s a good and a bad thing in that if you’re a brotherhood and you’re on one accord and the accord you’re on is not the right things and you’re not playing a big, physical brand of football then you’re going to all move in that direction,” Austin said.
That’s the catch. As Austin works to recreate the magic he made at UCF, he has to figure out how to fix the Huskers’ offensive line issues. Despite the brotherhood, Nebraska rushed for only 107.5 yards per game in 2017, ranking 120th nationally. On a per-carry basis? Nebraska wasn’t much better with 3.5 yards per carry, ranking 112th.
That’s not exactly the offensive line numbers Austin remembers from Nebraska. And it’s personal, too. A former Huskers guard, Austin wants to restore “The Pipeline” at Nebraska. It won’t happen overnight, but he’s OK with that.
He instead expects to see his players get a little better every day. As long as they’re putting in the work, they’ll be headed in the right direction.
Hopefully with it, the magic will return — even if it’s a little different than it was at Central Florida.
“It’s great they’re all a great group of individuals, but now let’s raise the standard and that’s what we’re working on right now,” Austin said. “When I got here, I told these guys I’m not here to overhaul [the offensive line] completely, which is what we kind of did at UCF.
“This isn’t a complete overhaul, but we’re finding the cracks in the armor and filling them and raising the standard.”