Nebraska's stars on offense have historically been its skill position players—from Johnny Rodgers to Tommie Frazier to Rex Burkhead—but the foundation on which the offense has always been built is its offensive line. That line should be as deep and talent-heavy as it's been in a long time in 2012, and if Nebraska makes a run at the title game, it can probably thank its big men up front.
The man in charge of that line is Barney Cotton. If that last name sounds a little familiar, it ought to—he's the father of senior tight end Ben Cotton. Cotton the younger, fittingly, is more of a blocker than fellow tight end Kyler Reed. Together, they're the best tight end duo in the conference, if not the nation.
But back to Barney Cotton.
His name should also be familiar to older Huskers fans because he himself was a part of Nebraska's lineman legacy. He played for Tom Osborne in the late '70s, switching between the offensive and defensive sides of the line before settling in on offense and becoming a solid starter.
By 1978, he was a second-team All-Big Ten guard, and he parlayed that success into a brief NFL career before being felled by injury in 1982.
Cotton went into coaching shortly thereafter, and this is actually Cotton's second stint with Nebraska. He spent three years at Iowa State from 2004 to 2006 after coaching in Lincoln in 2003, having not been retained by Bill Callahan upon that regime change.
It's tempting to think of those three years (plus the 2007 season, when he volunteered at Ames High, in the same city as Iowa State and where Ben was playing at the time) as the time when Barney just "lost his way" (as have most people who willingly associate with Iowa State in any respect), but it really wasn't anything more than Bill Callahan not being very good at personnel decisions.
Fortunately, Bo Pelini rectified Callahan's error and re-hired Cotton, and Cotton is now an associate head coach in addition to taking care of the line. Cotton was even thought of as a potential offensive coordinator candidate when Pelini was making his hires, but that job went to Tim Beck instead, and Nebraska is well set there.
Cotton's resume is solid, and like his mustache, it speaks for itself as a strength. He spent six years at New Mexico State as the offensive line coach, and for each of those six years, the Aggies were in the top 25 nationally in rushing yardage.
That's no small feat at a school where little goes well on the gridiron, and without NFL-caliber talent at the tailback position, it's practically impossible to achieve such success in the ground game without a perennially powerful offensive line.
Cotton isn't a miracle worker, and even at a "football factory" like Nebraska, there's some room for improvement for his starters. Andrew Rodriguez hasn't panned out quite yet as a former 5-star recruit, and the offensive line went through four different starting lineups in 2011—not a great show of stability.
These Huskers have plenty of experience, though, and all Cotton needs is his best five to stay healthy for the Huskers to have a dominant ground game this season. The parts are there.