LINCOLN — Offensive line coach John Garrison was sitting by strength coach James Dobson, in the locker room, waiting for coach Bo Pelini to address the team before it took the field at Memorial Stadium for the Illinois game when he heard the familiar voice.
“I was like, ‘Who is that?’” said Garrison. “I said, ‘Is that ‘Andy’ Rodriguez?’”
It was Andrew Rodriguez. And the Huskers’ senior offensive tackle was talking to the team.
“I got tears in my eyes, just because you’re almost like a proud dad a little bit because you see the guy grow. You never once in a million years, two years ago, thought that ‘Andy’ would have felt comfortable doing that,” Garrison said. “But when he says something, people listen.
“He’s definitely got the ability to be a motivational factor.”
What exactly Rodriguez said is between him and his teammates and coaches, of course. But that he said what he did drew mention during post-game interviews.
“I felt like that was needed,” said Rodriguez.
He comes across, to reporters anyway, as soft-spoken and reflective, in marked contrast to his size; he’s listed at 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds. In fact, when he talked about his surprise pre-game speech, you had to stand close in order to hear everything he said.
“There’s just sometimes when you’re in the locker room and you can tell when a team is flat or if they have energy or not,” he said. And, for him, last Saturday was such a time.
Presumably, that won’t be the case when the Huskers take the field at Purdue on Saturday. It’ll be a new experience for young players getting their first opportunity. At the mid-point of the regular-season schedule, Nebraska will be playing away from home for the first time.
Given their 1-4 record, the Boilermakers wouldn’t seem to represent a formidable challenge. But Nebraska is still trying to regain confidence that might have been lost in the UCLA loss. Plus, for the third consecutive game, it will be without senior quarterback Taylor Martinez.
A recurring theme of questioning those associated with the Huskers’ offensive line this week is the fact that the line has allowed only two sacks this season, both against UCLA.
By comparison, Nebraska gave up 35 sacks last season.
Garrison evaded questions about the sacks, as if answering would jinx the situation. Prompted, however, he said: “I think our quarterbacks are doing a great job of getting rid of the ball, putting us in good situations, obviously listening to Coach (Tim) Beck putting us in protection calls and different things. And our centers have done a great job of really captaining the whole thing.
“But I also threaten the quarterbacks’ lives if they hold onto the ball too long,” said Garrison. “So that’s worked out well. That’s the other thing.”
Rodriguez didn’t much care to talk about the lack of sacks, either. “I try not to pay attention to that,” he said. “We always have something better to do as an offensive line, as a unit and as an offense. We always can do better than what we did last game. And that’s what I’m trying to do out here every day, (be) better than I was last week or last practice or last repetition.
“I’m always trying to look forward.”
Looking forward based on looking back at the Illinois game, the Huskers will again emphasize the running game, which can help the young defense by keeping it off the field.
Nebraska rushed for 351 yards against the Illini.
“I think our guys are excited about any challenge, whatever’s presented,” Garrison said.
But last week’s windy conditions made passing more difficult. The offensive linemen were “excited about it because they know what that means: we’ve got to be able to run the ball,” said Garrison. “It probably wasn’t as bad as that . . . with the wind. But anything you can challenge this group of guys with they’re excited about it. They don’t look at it as, ‘Oh, gosh, where can I put my head in the sand?’
“They try to put it on their back and lift it and go from there.”
For Rodriguez, that also meant saying something to the team before taking the field. He has addressed the offensive line before but never the whole team.
“I’m so focused sometimes it’s just like I don’t realize I’m not really contributing to the leadership in the locker room, and I should be because I guess I’m a big guy and I need to show that presence with my teammates and show that leadership,” Rodriguez said.
Garrison was touched by the emotion of it.
“We were all kind of smiling, ‘That’s what we needed,’” he said. “To see a guy like that step up and really battle through things and play consistently like he has is pretty exciting, fun to see.”
Mike Babcock covers and writes about Nebraska football.