New assistant Mike Cavanaugh embraces Nebraska's O-line tradition, culture

Mike Cavanaugh has settled in at Nebraska and has embraced the school's culture and tradition. Nati Harnik/AP

LINCOLN, Neb. -- A photo of five offensive linemen hangs in the hallway outside the coaching offices on the second story of the Nebraska football complex at Memorial Stadium.

Helmets strapped tight, the linemen are pictured inside the old Orange Bowl stadium, awaiting a resumption in play during the Huskers' national title-clinching victory over Miami on New Year's Day 1995.

Shortly after Mike Cavanaugh took over seven months ago here as offensive line coach, the photo caught his eye. Long an admirer of the line production that helped Nebraska win 13 rushing titles from 1980 to 2001, Cavanaugh sought the authority on O-line matters to learn the tale of its origin.

Milt Tenopir, the Huskers' iconic line coach who retired in 2002 after 29 years, had an answer.

Turns out, the Nebraska linemen refused to remove their helmets in the hot and humid Miami air. And they stayed on the field to ensure their opponent would notice.

"That was to send a message," Cavanaugh said. "It was, 'We're not taking our helmets off, because we're tougher than you.' It was about breaking people's will as an offensive line.

"I love that stuff.

Among four assistants who moved with coach Mike Riley last winter from Oregon State, Cavanaugh has settled nicely into his new role. The veteran assistant embraced the Nebraska tradition and appears a strong fit as the Huskers ready for the open of preseason camp next month.

Cavanaugh, entering his 30th season of coaching, said the bedrock of his teaching revolves around fundamentals – his primary focus with the Huskers in spring practice – and toughness. He refers to the pair of traits as "separators."

Examples of the required toughness litter Nebraska history. Start with the 75-year-old Tenopir.

This offseason, Cavanaugh forged a relationship with the former coach, who has battled leukemia over the past 14 months. It's hardly slowing him. Tenopir, in fact, wanted to go fishing Friday with Cavanaugh, who had to decline because of several appointments.

But they've dined out multiple times -- a cherished activity for the new coach. Cavanaugh's wife, Laurie, made fast friends with Tenopir's wife, Terri.

Tenopir attended several practices in the spring and summer camps sessions, and Cavanaugh never turned down a chance to visit with old pupils of Tenopir. He coached 21 All-America linemen.

"Obviously, it means a lot to our whole staff to meet the guys who have built this tradition," Cavanaugh said. "The thing that has stood out to me is the pride that the old-school guys have in the play of the offensive line. They just want us to be physical."

Nebraska has struggled over much of the past decade to find consistent line play. Last year, though, it ranked among the top four in the Big Ten in scoring, yards per game, yards per play and rushing.

The Huskers return senior left tackle Alex Lewis as the anchor up front. He was named an offensive captain in June, alongside quarterback Tommy Amstrong Jr. and receiver Jordan Westerkamp.

Cavanaugh said his hopes are high for Lewis.

"I expect him to play his best football as a senior," the coach said.

Seniors Zach Sterup, the starter last year at right tackle, and Ryne Reeves, with experience at center and guard, return in August from injuries that kept them out of spring practice.

"I'm excited to see what they can do," Cavanaugh said. "They look terrific right now. They've had great summers. I know they're stronger, from some of the reports I've gotten."

Senior Chongo Kondolo showed well enough in spring to enter August with an edge to start at right guard.

Among the younger group, Cavanaugh said he's anxious to work again with redshirt freshmen Nick Gates, a tackle, and guard Jerald Foster.

Beyond Lewis, little is set.

"There are a lot of questions right now," Cavanaugh said, "who those five guys are going to be."

When practice opens, Cavanaugh, despite limited time with the Huskers, said he'll feel considerably more comfortable than a few months ago. He's received an education on Nebraska since last December.

Nebraskans' friendliness reminds Cavanaugh of Hawaii, where coached from 1999 to 2004 under June Jones.

"I've been really impressed with the Nebraska people from the very start and the pride they have," Cavanaugh said, "just how warm to me people are."

At Oregon State, coaches embraced the coziness of the Corvallis. Lincoln, about five times the population size, offers an equally appealing sense of community. The Cavanaughs, at their new home, recently hosted the linemen for dinner. Last week, the coach attended a Kenny Chesney concert at the Huskers' downtown basketball arena.

"It's just genuine, good-spirited folks," he said. "Everybody looks you in the eye and shakes your hand. There's a lot going on in Lincoln, and it's just great to be a part of it."