Former Colorado head coach Gary Barnett took some time on Thursday to chat with Chris Schmidt on the Hail Varsity radio show about Nebraska’s backfield heading into the upcoming season. Barnett touched on what a receiving tailback needs to be able to do to be effective, what kinds of linemen he recruited at Colorado and what the strangest thing he’s ever signed was.
The following is their conversation, edited for length.
Hail Varsity: Coach, how are we doing?
Gary Barnett: “I’m doing great Chris. Standing next to Bob Churchich, great Cornhusker quarterback, we’re hitting balls and enjoying a good day in Boulder.”
HV: How does Bob hit them?
GB: “Bob’s a really good player but he’s just torn his rotator cuff and his biceps tendon and he’s having surgery on Sep. 7, so he’s going to be out for six months. I’m going to try and play him while he’s out that way I can beat him.”
HV: There you go. Coach we’re getting closer to college football and earlier today, they had open practice for Nebraska, they had a scrimmage and there’s typical camp thoughts with where they’re at, but one thing I wanted to focus on and touch on today with you was the running back out of the backfield. Nebraska really hasn’t settled. They’re trying to find a guy to kind of emerge as the go-to. That said, with this offense, with (quarterback Tanner) Lee, with what (coach Mike) Riley and (offensive coordinator Danny) Langsdorf want to do, it sounds like it’ll be extremely prominent in this offense. I wanted to tap into your expertise about just what it can do to defenses not just in the Big Ten but in non-conference. How effective can that element be for Nebraska this season?
GB: “It can be big. If you just look at Colorado last year, their third-leading receiver was a running back and it’s probably one of the most difficult receiving positions to cover and not only that, but once you get the ball in the hands of one of those guys, they know how to run with it. They do it for a living. It’s a great weapon against defenses these days. I think anybody that’s interested in going to the NFL, if they’re a recruit, they need to look someplace where they can be thrown the ball out of the backfield because that’s such a critical skill that all pro scouts are looking for now.
“I think that and running the quarterback with a lead blocker are the two things that really make it tough on defenses. Defenses are already in trouble with all the spread stuff but when you add a third-down-and-short package or a red zone package with a quarterback running the ball behind a running back, you get an extra blocker that way, and then getting the ball to the back out of the backfield now, to a guy that can catch it in almost any situation, you’ve got a huge advantage offensively when you can do those things.”
HV: The receiving game is going to be emphasized and with your scheme and what you wanted to do – one of the running backs was talking to us, Mikale Wilbon, and he kind of opened up about the option routes they have based on formation – give us a little bit of your history and specifically what you asked your backs to do. Did you have option routes in there based on what the defense was giving you?
GB: “We did. In a couple of our offenses, we did. Some of them we didn’t. Going to Colorado in 1999, we were a West Coast offense, which, of course, that’s what (coach) Mike (Riley) is rooted in there at Nebraska, but they’ve expanded it quite a bit now to where it’s more shotgun and one-back oriented. Everybody uses the same numbering system and the same routes and all that sort of stuff.
“It takes a guy who understands the pass game, and I’m talking about a running back, that can run the option routes. Not everybody can run those. It’s one of those things that they do a lot of in the NFL and if that’s a skill that you can acquire in college, it’s just a plus, so if you’re in an offense that runs that, it’s a big advantage.
“Option routes are based on just getting the guy open and when you get a guy to catch the ball that can also run with it like most running backs can, then it’s an advantage. So, we always worked a lot of option routes and it takes a lot of timing and it takes protection. And a back has to know when an option route becomes a hot route, because when they bring more guys than you can block, many times the back is the hot receiver, so he’s got to read defenses, he’s got to know when a certain player comes on a blitz or after the quarterback that he’s got to cut his route off. It takes a lot of time. Fortunately, with no two-a-days and five weeks, they’ve got a lot of time to work on that kind of stuff.”
HV: What can the tight end and the running back out of the backfield do for the guys that are in the slot or guys that are split out wide? How big a headache can it be if everything’s working like you just touched on for defenses? Can it do big things in the Big Ten?
GB: “There’s a lot of big linebackers in the Big Ten – big, sturdy guys – so anytime you can put an athlete like a good tight end, then he’s just like a bigger wide receiver. Maybe not so fast, but nimble enough to get open. You can now throw routes against their worst defenders, and that’s what you do with the backs and tight ends.
“You know the guys at corner and safety are full on to cover receivers so you always have tough matchups there, generally, but where you get the mismatch is with tight ends and running backs against linebackers. You always want to run against linebackers rather than nickelbacks because nickelbacks are just another corner stuck in there. You want to get that mismatch if you can. And anymore, that’s what football is about: creating the matchups that you want rather than the matchups that they want.”
HV: What type of premium did you place on athletic linemen? Coach (Mike) Cavanaugh is extremely happy with this group as far as their traits. They are a very athletic group. They’ve got to work on some things, obviously, that’ll be key for Nebraska to be balanced, but he loves the athleticism. Was that something you really went after, getting those offensive linemen that were just freak athletes?
GB: “What we tried to do was we’d take as many defensive linemen as we could and then move some of them over to offense because they were always, for the most part, better athletes.
“We would sacrifice height for athleticism, and I don’t think that’s changed. When you’re trying to do things that Mike Riley’s doing, the West Coast stuff, it really puts a premium on athletic offensive linemen as opposed to the great big hogs that you get in some offenses.”
HV: ESPN did a feature and they asked a number of coaches ‘what’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever autographed?” I think this story came out a couple days ago and it’s hilarious. Some poor guy had a prosthetic he took off for Coach (Brett) Beilema to sign down at Arkansas. You have a snow plow that was offered to be signed. An Ohio State fan wanted Urban Meyer to sign a snow plow. And then Coach (Mike) Leach had what he said was the biggest bra he’d ever seen he had to sign. What’s the weirdest, craziest thing you had to sign? Or even refused to sign?
GB: “I signed a bra strap in Iowa. The plane had just landed, we’d gotten off the bus and we were walking in and this lady asked me to sign the top of her bra strap. I made sure there was a lot of witnesses around but I did sign it.
“I’ll tell you though, the hardest thing to sign is a golf ball. There’s no way you can get your signature on a golf ball, that’s the hardest thing.”
HV: Have you been practicing that part of it?
GB: “No I don’t sign many golf balls. They don’t stay with me long enough.”
HV: (Laughter) That’s right. So was this when you were playing Iowa or was it Iowa State?
GB: “It was at Iowa.”
HV: That had to be a pleasant welcome to Iowa, I guess. I don’t know. Coach, thanks for the time today.
GB: “Thanks Chris. Talk to you later.”
Chris teamed up with Aaron and Mike Babcock back in 2008 and has been working the radio ever since. Originally from Lincoln, Chris grew up going to Husker games with his family. “Schmidty” loves talking sports and the chance to interview and visit with coaches and players. Chris is married to Erin and they have one son, Carson.