Through five spring practices, Mark Whipple has seen good and bad.
Earlier this week Erik Chinander’s defense won at least one rep against quarterback Casey Thompson and the receivers by picking off the Texas transfer. That was the bad. The good? Thompson, who threw nine interceptions in 290 career attempts as a Longhorn, didn’t let it affect him the rest of the practice. He made the mistake and moved on.
“The best thing he did was, we’re putting a lot of new stuff in they haven’t done, and he (Thompson) threw a pick and it didn’t bother him, that was the good thing,” Whipple said. “Knowing that, hey, we’re trying to get a lot of reps, with new things, we’re moving on and there’s a lot of installs, and he’s really worked hard. And all the quarterbacks have.”
Answering questions from the media on Wednesday, Nebraska’s first-year offensive coordinator said he needs to be more patient and remind himself that he isn’t working with a three-year starter at quarterback like he was last year. Nebraska isn’t Pittsburgh and he doesn’t have a Kenny Pickett on the roster.
To be fair, though, Whipple might have a Pickett, as in a quarterback who executes the offense at a high level and is capable of making highlight plays with his arm and legs, but it’s too early to tell right now in early March. Pickett was able to operate Whipple’s attack well because he had multiple seasons to learn and play in it. Pickett started 49 games in his career and became the textbook definition of an experienced quarterback.
Whipple won’t have that kind of experience at Nebraska. Thompson is the closest—he started 10 games at Texas, all of which came last year. Logan Smothers and Florida State transfer Chubba Purdy each have one start under the belt—Smothers’ came against Iowa in last year’s finale while Purdy’s was at North Carolina State in 2020. Both were losses.
As the quarterback competition rages on, 7-on-7 drills can only show Whipple so much. That’s why this Friday’s scrimmage, the first of the spring, is so important.
One of the most important things Whipple wants to see in the scrimmage is ball security. Limit the amount of interceptions from the quarterbacks. Hold on to the ball. No drops from the wideouts.
“We’ll play it as the first game as I say,” Whipple said. “So like, if it’s third-and-10 on the first drive, yeah, I’d like to say we’re gonna go third-and-make-it, but don’t turn the ball over. We’d like to get a touchdown the first drive, but may not throw it as much or take a chance that way. Get out of it and play a clean game, play a clean scrimmage, especially early on.”
Some of the new things Whipple is teaching the quarterbacks includes more formations from under center, something that head coach Scott Frost hasn’t done much of in his coaching career and isn’t as popular in modern-day college football. With more under center, that means the quarterbacks need to work on their footwork and drops, which are different compared to taking the snap from the shotgun. Smothers touched on the differences in Whipple’s offense compared to Frost’s from last season.
“We do a lot more footwork drills with Whipple compared to coach Verdu (Mario Verduzco),” Smothers said. “We’re doing a lot of five-step drops, we didn’t do that with coach Verdu, so that’s new for us, a little more under center, so that’s a little new for everybody. Nothing we can’t handle.”
To Whipple, the whole pass game is about footwork. There’s different kinds of dropbacks quarterbacks use, the main ones being three, five and seven steps. Then there’s different footwork for play-action. The quarterbacks are trying to get those correct dropbacks on tape at practice so they can take them home on spring break to study.
“You try to get it on tape, and I know that they’re thinking a lot about it, but once they see it, if you have good rhythm with your feet, then you have a really good chance to be an accurate passer,” Whipple said.
Whipple believes utilizing more under-center offense will benefit the run game and quarterback recruiting. Last month, the Huskers got the verbal commitment of 2023 four-star quarterback William “Pop” Watson.
“We want to recruit quarterbacks and we’re gonna tell them we’re gonna try to help them get to the NFL. I’ve seen those guys that haven’t gone under center, and I’ve seen a lot of these high school guys that haven’t,” Whipple said. “It’s still part of the NFL, now not as much as it used to be. You never saw Steve Young go under center, you never saw Joe Montana.
“But it’s part of the run game, especially because the back has a chance for a better, more full-spectrum run, I guess is what it comes down to. When you have the I tailback, and you’re here, it cuts off part of it. So when you get the full spectrum of the zones, I think it helps in their landmarks, and I think it helps when NFL scouts see those guys on the tape.”
It’s a learning process for everyone on the offense, receivers included. Whipple is learning what he has at the position, which returns pass catchers like Omar Manning, Zavier Betts, Alante Brown and Oliver Martin, but also adds newcomers like LSU transfer Trey Palmer and New Mexico State transfer Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda.
Whipple has been impressed with the receivers. They run well, he said, and have been showing steady progress on the finer details of their route running.
“Each guy is a little bit different, and we don’t want to take away those, we don’t want cookie-cutters,” Whipple said, “but angles of curl routes or in routes or things at the top, I just saw major improvement. Stacking on go routes, staying in the red line. I thought those things, coach (Mickey) Joseph and coach (Mike) Cassano have done a really good job.”
Many of the receivers have been learning all the receiver positions. Whipple wants the wideouts to run their routes hard for four quarters, and having depth is a way to keep players fresh throughout the game. While the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Manning will line up on the outside at times, he’ll also play in the slot, where the matchups might favor the former junior-college product.
“It’s more than he can run,” Whipple said of Manning. “He’s big, and it also has something to do with the run game and the blocking. But you’re getting him on safeties, you’re putting him on linebackers where he can bounce and get over the top of those guys. He’s been really impressive inside.”
After playing in just one game in 2020, Manning made more of an impact last season. He played in 11 games, catching 26 passes for 380 yards and two touchdowns.
Through five spring practices, there’s been good and bad. Friday’s scrimmage will help Nebraska’s OC get a clearer picture of what he’s working with.