Barring something drastic happening in the college football world between now and next Sunday, this week’s column and next week’s are going to be linked. Because Nebraska got not just good but great news this week, anyone looking at what the Huskers can trot out on offense this season has justification for feeling excited about the potential.
I, for one, feel cautiously optimistic.
BUT, having gone through this same song and dance last season, a little point-counterpoint feels in order. It’ll be a good exercise. The Husker head coach thinks we set expectations too high last season.
Next week will be a look at things that can hamstring the NU offense this upcoming season.
This week—with the news that Zavier Betts has put in the work required to get himself in the clear academically, and the whispers that Omar Manning isn’t far behind—is about looking at the pieces on the plate that incite some excite-(see what I did there?)-ment over Nebraska’s offense.
(To be fair, this is not “NEBRASKA’S GOING TO WIN THE SUPER BOWL, PLACE YOUR BETS NOW.” Nebraska finished 2019 96th in quarterback pressures as a pass defense and 101st in yards per carry as a run defense. The defense sets the ceiling. This is about how high the offense can fly up to that point.)
Here we go.
“If you can put enough stress on people with other (guys), if (Scott Frost) can have one or two more playmakers within the offense… Like I said, every defense can be defeated on a given play. If you have enough offensive weapons to put stress on that defense and spread it effectively, you can win and you can win big.”
That’s Spencer Tillman, former college running back, NFL running back and current FOX Sports expert on Saturdays. We were talking about the fit of Sevion Morrison, one of the running back signees from the 2020, and the conversation became one of what Nebraska’s offense could be with more home-run-hitters like Morrison spread around.
Tillman recalled setting up some plays with Frost in a pregame meeting they had one weekday before FOX did a Husker game. Frost drew a speed motion coming back across the formation and Tillman just looked at it and said, “All that is is the option game, Scott.” Don’t block the end, bring the pitch back in motion, and you have the wishbone.
“But he’s doing it closer to the line of scrimmage and that’s where the genius comes in,” Tillman told me. “The genius is, ‘OK guys, the wishbone has three people in the backfield, so if you’re trying to defend that, you’re … at a disadvantage because if you’re speed-oriented on defense, you have to slow down if you’re trying to defend the quarterback, and so it takes what is an asset—speed—and neutralizes it. You can’t just run full bore at the guy. You have to play the option game. That plays into the hands of the offense.”
Recruit enough talent that you spread out the defense and create one-on-one matchups that lean nearly universally in the offense’s favor and you win. Winning one-on-ones leads to downs won which leads to drives won. That’s the calculus Frost is working with.
Just how effective the Outscore You strategy will be in the Big Ten remains to be seen, but nothing has changed in Frost’s quest to find out.
Watching back through the first half of the Colorado game, Nebraska had a fully-healthy offensive outfit with guys making plays all over the place. Adrian Martinez hit five different receivers for 20-yard completions. The run game was clicking. The Buffs brought just three, sometimes four rushers and dared Martinez to throw and he made the right decisions every time. The Huskers averaged 8.6 yards per play in that half.
Martinez was healthy (a subplot in his sophomore season that is too often overlooked). Wan’Dale Robinson was healthy and playing the preferred role. JD Spielman was healthy. Maurice Washington was doing what he was supposed to.
Brock Huard, FOX’s analyst for the game, was talking about things were starting to look right as Washington rumbled down the sideline for 40 yards.
“I’m having these flashbacks right now to the 80s and 90s right now of just all the star power and the difference-makers,” Huard said on the telecast. “This is so dangerous.”
That was premature—obviously, as we’d come to find out later—but that game, and more specifically that half, remains as one of the best insights into what Nebraska is trying to build. It has slowly but surely been piecing together an offense with a dangerous concoction of talent.
The news that Zavier Betts was going to be academically eligible to enroll at Nebraska brought back to the forefront how much of a weapon Nebraska is adding in the Bellevue West product. Which then led to thinking about Omar Manning. Which then led to thinking about how they pair with Robinson and how that trio can benefit from NU’s ground game.
Which, of course, led to optimism.
In 2020, Wan’Dale Robinson can be the Duck-R Nebraska envisioned him as instead of the emergency-turned-necessity running back because Dedrick Mills is a hammer who showed in his first season that the inside battering opens up fruitful outside running and late-game efficiency. Rahmir Johnson, Ronald Thompkins, Marvin Scott III, Morrison and a few noteworthy walk-ons make for comforting depth behind Mills.
JD Spielman, should he return, theoretically wouldn’t have to play out of position anymore.
If he’s not back, Nebraska has the potential to absorb the blow. Frost says Manning has NFL potential. Betts’ high school coach, Michael Huffman, called the kid a “phenom.” Those two, standing 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-2, respectively, could be plug-and-play starters for an offense that sorely needed size out wide last year.
Of Martinez’s 1,956 passing yards a season ago, the ball only traveled 786 yards in the air. That meant roughly 60% of Martinez’s passing yardage came from his receivers doing work after they’d caught the ball. Contrast that with, say, Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan, who got 65.7% of his yardage through the air. Go take a look at the Gopher receivers’ measurables.
A lot of what Nebraska likes to do involves getting the ball into the hands of its skill players fast, so it might be off-base to expect Martinez to start booming throws left and right just because he has bigger receivers, but the play-action shot game is a big part of the equation as well. Forty-three percent of Martinez’s total dropbacks came off play-action, but he averaged only 5.9 yards per throw. (Morgan averaged 12.9.)
That is where Manning and Betts can come in and help. Both were two of the most sought-after wideout recruits in the country for their abilities to make plays.
Betts caught 46 touchdown passes in high school and went over 3,000 yards. Is expecting a true freshman to be impactful right away asking too much? Depends. What was Wan’Dale Robinson last year?
Manning averaged 20.6 yards per catch in his two years at the JUCO level.
“All (2019) we kind of wished we were a little more productive at our outside receiver spot,” Frost said on the December signing day. “That’s one place where we thought we wanted a kind of guy that could come in and potentially help us right away. There wasn’t a better guy in the country, in my opinion, for what we were looking for than (Manning). He looks different than anybody I’ve ever coached and has tape to match. I’m really excited to get him. He’s got a little work to do yet before he gets to campus, but I think he has a chance to change our offense.”
Neither of those guys was ever going to get a spring ball, so the loss of those practices is moot. They’re still in the same situation they would have been in under normal circumstances. It might take time to get things up and running but is it too much to expect them to be major pieces by midseason? I don’t think so.
I also wholeheartedly expect Nebraska to be a better blocking team on the perimeter. They showed progress even last year.
“I don’t know if Frost would say it, but most of what (offensive coordinator Matt) Lubick has learned and teaches in the blocking game, from the receivers’ perspective, is actually stuff he learned from Frost,” Lubick’s old GA from Oregon, Nate Costa, told me in March. “When Frost came to Oregon as a receivers coach to work for Chip (Kelly), that’s when we saw the escalation of our wide receivers’ ability to block. That’s because Frost brought a certain personality of toughness to that room, and then he incorporated it with a blocking technique he actually picked up in the NFL. And that’s something we’ve used ever since. Lubick kind of took it over.
“I would expect that to definitely be an (area of) improvement just because that’s going to be something that Lubick is going to take pride in and he’s going to emphasize it in the meeting room.”
And I don’t so much care what the names on the backs of the offensive line jerseys read as I do where those jerseys are within relation to the line of scrimmage once the ball is snapped. Is Nebraska holding its ground in pass protection or letting the defense create a new line of scrimmage? Is the o-line getting push on run plays? There’s enough working in that group’s favor to demand improvement regardless of the lineup.
It’s all about the explosive play. Which means it’s all about the explosive players.
Nebraska has weapons that complement each other, guys that make sense in this offense at every spot.
The Huskers project as a team that will run to set up the throw. That leads to two questions: 1) can they block well enough on the ground to return to the top-25 rushing outfit they were in 2018, and 2) can they cut back on the turnovers that derailed things in 2019? If so, the pieces look as though they’re starting to fall into place.
Analytics used in this piece came courtesy of the Sports Info Solutions Data Hub, unless otherwise noted.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.