Since Scott Frost’s arrival in Lincoln, much has been made about the passing game, be it the need to stock the proverbial skill position cupboard with talent, the desire to involve tight ends in the fun more often, or the talk of getting your running backs trained up to be pass-catchers out of the backfield.
The pass-centric line of thinking is even present in the way we talk about the overall team. If Nebraska is to be successful in 2020, it will be because of blank. Fill in the blank with me. “Because Adrian Martinez was successful.”
That is, of course, a massive oversimplification of what determines success or failure in modern college football, but that’s what the conversation boils down to a lot of the time, right?
Something worth remembering about the offense Frost learned and has since employed at Nebraska: from 2014 through the 2017 season, Royce Freeman averaged 23 carries a game and 5.9 yards a carry while playing in it.
That was with the Oregon Ducks. Freeman had 252 carries as a freshman, then a 283-tote, 1,836-yard follow-up year as a sophomore. He produced a touchdown every 16 touches over the course of his career.
Granted, Frost was only helming those Freeman-oriented offenses for the ’14 and ’15 seasons, but the scheme didn’t change much once Frost left to take the head coaching gig at UCF. That was the case because in stepped Matt Lubick to assume the Ducks’ offensive coordinator title.
Lubick, as you know, is now in Lincoln.
What’s more, from the time Chip Kelly took over the Ducks program and installed his revolutionary system through the 2016 campaign (Lubick’s last with Oregon), the Ducks did not have a single season in which they were among the 50 most pass-happy offenses in college football (attempts per game).
“The thing I love about this offense is we’re able to adapt to our talent,” Lubick said just this week. “We do have some components of a pro style. We’re able to run the ball downhill, but we’re also able to get the ball to our playmakers in space. … We have all the run game you’d see from an NFL team on Sundays. … That’s the best thing about this system, is how flexible it is.”
The more Nebraska talks about its offense—the strengths, the weaknesses, the guys in charge and their philosophies—the more Nebraska looks like a team that will butter its bread with the run.
“We’ve been buttering bread here for the last few month,” says offensive line coach and run game coordinator Greg Austin.
Run the Ball Guy might be pleased.
Freeman was a bruiser. Nebraska has a bruiser of its own, fully incorporated into the offense and ready to roll. Running back coach Ryan Held has repeatedly referred to senior Dedrick Mills as the team’s bell cow.
Mills averaged a shade under 12 carries a game last year. That put him right around 70th nationally among qualified ball-carriers.
How high could that number climb in 2020? Wan’Dale Robinson—who averaged around 10 carries a game—will be in the slot for most of the year. The guy who stole touches from Mills early on in 2019 is no longer in the picture.
Nebraska is talking openly and honestly about a race for the No. 2 tailback spot, but realistically that position might yield only crumbs if Mills is allowed to truly eat.
Mills started in a triple-option at Georgia Tech, then moved to a downhill power-run scheme at the JUCO level, then arrived at Nebraska and had to pick up the zone scheme the Huskers use. It took time for Mills to get comfortable finding and reading those cutbacks.
“It was just more reps he was getting, understanding the footwork and the offense, where the runs could hit,” Held said this week.
As last season wore on, Nebraska increasingly focused on hammering home inside zone. With other parts of the offense flashing angry, bright red warning lights, the run game tried to go “back to the basics” and perfect its inside zone base play.
Austin’s meetings begin with talk over the primary run scheme, he says. His individual drills to start practice begin with that same run scheme. “We’ve kind of beaten it into these guys’ heads,” he says. Back in March, the position coach talked of a desire to simplify and specialize. Find a few concepts Nebraska can perform and continue to return to that well.
“If there’s one thing this time period has allowed us—from June 1 when we could actually get back in the building up to today—it’s that we’ve been very, very adamant about being deliberate in what we’re doing, especially in the run game. We’re going to hang our hat on a few schemes, and we’re going to run them, and we’re going to get really good at them. The guys know because we preach it on a daily basis.”
That’s been Austin’s messaging all offseason long.
When Frost approached him about adding the “Run Game Coordinator” title earlier in the year, Austin says, he responded with something to the effect of, “Well, alright, here’s the deal if we’re going to do this, here’s how I look at it.” He took ownership.
One could make the argument there’s not a person on a football coaching staff better suited to coordinate a rushing attack than the offensive line coach. Theoretically, the man with his finger on the pulse of the line knows exactly what’s going to work best and when.
Austin has as deep a line as he’s had in his brief Nebraska tenure.
He has seemingly as many options as he could hope for.
There are experienced players and grizzled veterans and athletic specimens and promising freshmens (wanted the alliteration).
“They’ve done it all this camp,” Lubick said of the offensive line. “I’ve been really pleased with them, and I think they’re the strength of our offense.”
“I think they’re a strength of our football team.” He doubled down.
When was the last time you could say that about a Nebraska team?
Lubick says the Huskers want to be balanced. That doesn’t necessarily mean a perfect 50/50 split between the run and the throw; Frost hasn’t ever been there as a play-caller. It does mean, though, that the offensive line is going to have to be better than it has been.
The last five seasons of Husker football featured rushing attacks that ranked (starting in 2015 and working forward) 44th, 87th, 112th, 16th (Frost’s first year; what up, Ziggy), and 60th in average yards per carry. Mighty inconsistent.
Might have the goods this year to establish a new trend?
Nebraska’s coaching staff is singing the praises of redshirt freshman tailback Ronald Thompkins.
Perhaps they’re simply happy to be able to talk about him considering Held revealed this week there was a time when they questioned if they’d ever get to in any kind of football sense.
True freshman Marvin Scott doesn’t look his age. Redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson has added some weight and is catching out of the backfield well (still a must to be able to get on the field, even with a commitment to the run). Fellow 2020 classmate Sevion Morrison has the whole package.
Held feels like this is the deepest room he’s had so far. But…
“We’ve got to decide who the No. 2 back is and the No. 3 back is and move forward with those guys,” Frost said this week. “That doesn’t mean others won’t play but we need to start concentrating the reps.”
So there’s a competition for RB3, the offensive line coach feels good about the depth in his room, the running back coach feels good about the depth in his room, and the offensive coordinator is liking the way the whole thing is coming together.
Interesting times lay ahead.
If Nebraska commits to a ground game, if it gives Mills the Freeman role from Frost’s Duck days, what’s the floor?
Can Mills hit 1,000 yards?
In an eight-game regular season, that’s 125 a game. Only six backs in the country hit that mark last season.
What about just hitting Freeman’s career per-carry average? It was 5.6. That’d be a top-10 rushing attack based on 2019 averages. Is that enough to help out Adrian Martinez in the play-action department? How about in the screen game?
This is not a huge offensive playbook. There’s a litany of formations and more window-dressings than the Magnificent Mile at Christmas time, but a few base concepts are the foundation upon which everything else is built.
Nebraska says it underwent an exhaustive self-scout of the offense. With a longer-than-normal offseason, it had plenty of time to sit, think, and potentially tinker. But the guy running the run game has wanted to stay true to roots all summer.
What will all that tinkering bring? Will Nebraska let Martinez set the table through the passing game? Or will it let Mills run like a free man?
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.