Potentially Potent

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Potentially Potent

Of the many quotes from Bo Pelini to come out of Big Ten media days, my favorite may have been the following:

If we can get a couple of young kids, incoming guys, that can come in and provide us with some extra depth at a couple of positions, it’s a pretty potent — potentially a very potent offense. And I feel very good about it.

“Potentially potent.” Coming soon, hopefully, to a 2013 Nebraska schedule poster near you.

It is not just an alliterative way to describe the Huskers’ offense in 2013, but also pretty accurate. Nebraska has all of the major pieces back from an offense that ranked 26th nationally at 460 yards per game and first in the Big Ten, and that includes what Pelini called, moments before delivering the above quote, “probably the best offensive line on paper” since he’s been in Lincoln.

The baseline for a successful season for the 2013 offense is already pretty high. Start with an expectation of a top-20 offense nationally and you might come in on the conservative side of the estimates that are out there. That’s not totally unrealistic, but there are still a lot of questions out there other than “Will Nebraska’s offense be good again?” (The consensus is that it will.)

Based on conversations at Big Ten media days, some ongoing stats work and a proprietary blend of questioning (i.e. the things I tend to think and talk about) here are a few other questions, and potential answers, facing the Huskers offense in 2013.

But first, a reference point for this conversation. Here’s Nebraska’s offensive averages last year, compared with the national average in 2012:

Will Nebraska throw more in 2013?

Taylor Martinez hopes so and I think so.

“I love throwing the football around and getting everyone else involved,” Martinez said last week in Chicago. “We have a ton of weapons around us with me, Jamal, Quincy and Kenny. They’ve all played so many games, they’ve all scored touchdowns, they’ve scored a lot of touchdowns for us. When they get the ball, they know what to do with it.”

That’s all true. In fact, you may put the wide receiver corps ahead of the running back corps in terms of overall depth and strength right now. Ameer Abdullah may be the best player in either group, but, right now, there’s a larger drop off between Abdullah and his No. 2 (Imani Cross) than there is between Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner. Freshmen I-backs Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor may close that gap as the season goes on but the overall talent of the receiving corps is too big to ignore.

The Beckian ideal, as stated last year, is a 50-50 run-pass split. I don’t imagine that’s changed in the offseason though you can’t ignore the importance of a powerful run game. It would be foolish for Nebraska to get away from that to any significant extent, but the Huskers’ pass attempts per game have increased each year under Beck. He’s got another year under his belt as do all of the key players involved. Nebraska threw it 27 times a game last year. I expect that in 2013 that average will climb above 30 for the first time since 2008.

How will that change the run game?

As you can see in the chart above, where Nebraska really separated itself from the pack last year was on the ground. The Huskers were more than 80 yards better than the national average in rushing yards per game, and about 30 yards per game worse in the passing game. If we assume that Nebraska will throw it at least a few times more this season, who is it taking carries away from?

If anything, Abdullah will likely average more than the 16 carries per game he did last year. Let’s say around 20. Add up the carries from Rex Burkhead, Braylon Heard, and Cross last season and you have about another 20, that will likely be divvied up among Abdullah’s top two backups. Based on last year’s numbers, that would leave about seven or eight carries a game for Martinez, down from the 13.93 he averaged in 2012. I’d be surprised if his carries decreased that significantly, but I do think he’ll be closer to the 10 per game mark.

If a more mature Martinez simply stayed in the pocket and passed three times rather than scrambling, that would put Nebraska on pace for the run-pass split I think they’ll have but things are rarely so neat. I do think, however, that we’ll see a slight reduction in the designed run game for Martinez this season, simply to protect him a bit more. Nebraska doesn’t need him to break plays the way it once did — though it’s certainly not a bad thing if he does — and that might show up a bit on Saturdays.

Overall, I see Nebraska’s rushing total coming back slightly towards average, while the passing game climbs closer towards it.

Unless…

Is Nebraska’s offense poised to go even faster this season?

Martinez has something of an Oregon obsession. He invokes the Ducks quite a bit when talking about no-huddle offenses and, for what it’s worth, he said last week that if he plays NCAA 14 with a team other than the Huskers he chooses Oregon. (Aside: This is the correct answer. Oregon’s playbook is fun.)

For all of the talk about tempo last season, Nebraska only ended up running 2.9 more plays per game than the average team. In 2012, it was a facet of the offense, not the offense. I don’t see that chaining significantly, but the more you go up-tempo, the easier it becomes. The Huskers certainly could shoot for the 80 plays per game mark — Mack Brown is — and probably make it pretty easily, but this is the interesting thing about Nebraska’s offense under Beck: It’s fast when it wants to/needs to be.

If you can execute that adequately, and the Huskers did last year, that’s, to borrow a phrase, potentially potent.

Will the offense look the same as last year?

Maybe?

“Don’t expect a lot the same from last year,” Martinez said last week. “A lot of things that Coach Beck has told me in the offseason, are it’s crazy and it’s going to be a lot of fun. Maybe (the fans) won’t see much of a difference, but, to us, it’s going to be a huge difference and it should gas the defenses a lot more. I’m very excited to add the plays in, run it against our defense and see how it goes.”

Good luck deciphering exactly what that means, but Beck has a deep bag of tricks. As he becomes more comfortable, I think it’s safe to expect him to dig deeper inside of it.

As far as what that looks like, I’ll go with Martinez’s description: “a lot of fun.”

Will the offense produce the same as last year?

Probably, but I’m not sure that, from a yards perspective at least, it will be better. Over the past four decades of college football, the average offense has improved by about two yards per game per year just for showing up. That’s the offensive inflation of the college game. More recently, over the past four seasons, the average total yards per game across college football has been growing by 8.9 yards per game per year. That means that Nebraska could average nearly 470 yards per game this season and barely account for inflation (assuming that continues and there are no major rule changes, traditionally the only thing that has slowed offensive growth, to imply that it won’t).

Nebraska could have similar yard and point totals in 2013 and be just fine. The offense shouldn’t need to be better and if it does, the Huskers have bigger problems. Putting up a similar statistical profile still seems like the most likely scenario to me, but there is one big wild card here: efficiency.

Here’s how Pelini put it in Chicago:

We’ve become very multiple on offense and I think we’re on the cutting edge of some of the things that we do. What we need to do to take the next step, in my opinion, is we need to become more efficient. I just believe in great efficiency on offense. It’s not only going to make our offense better, it’s going to make our defense better.

What he means is fewer turnovers (of course), fewer mistakes, and converting more opportunities. For a team that ranked 26th nationally in total offense, Nebraska was not as good at converting third downs (42nd nationally) or red zone opportunities (34th) as one might expect. That’s somewhat surprising for an offense that most would classify as “very good” in 2012. As Pelini noted, there are opportunities for improvement that might not even show up on the stat sheet. (At least not the one you get when you click on a box score at ESPN.com.)

All of which is to say that, for Nebraska’s offense in 2013, it’s not so much about the higher ceiling it’s presumed to have. It’s more about stuffing more under the high ceiling it already displayed last season.

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