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Hot Reads: Where Do the Huskers Go After Frost’s Run Heaviest Year Yet?

March 08, 2020

The leading rushers in Nebraska's 2019 spring game were Jaylin Bradley (57 yards, White) and Brody Belt (53 yards, Red). If you could find someone willing to book the bet, Belt might not be a bad pick to do it again in 2020. Much like last year, there are plenty of questions surrounding the Huskers' ground game and the spring practice session can only offer partial answers. If that.

Maurice Washington was one of two scholarship backs in camp last spring, but he was a "limited participant" as his legal situation played out. Bradley was the other. His 12 carries in the spring game were 10 more than he'd get in the rest of 2019 and he transferred this offseason.

That leaves the Huskers again with two scholarship backs taking part in spring drills, which get underway Monday. Dedrick Mills is the leading returning rusher, the known quantity, and, if I had to guess right now, could get a handful of carries in the spring game and then watch the majority of it. Rahmir Johnson, a redshirt freshman after getting 21 carries over four games last season, has the most important spring ahead as Nebraska looks for a second option (at least) behind Mills. Ronald Thompkins, also a redshirt freshman, could be in the same spot as Johnson if he's fully recovered from an October knee surgery but his status is unclear for now.

Eventually Nebraska will hope to have five scholarship running backs vying for carries in 2020, but two of those options won't arrive until the summer which makes this spring a little less of the battleground it could've been. So it goes.

But reviewing Nebraska's 2019 run game has become one of my offseason obsessions. I wrote a little bit about that in our spring preview staff post on Sunday:

Sacrilege, I know, to even inadvertently imply that the best number of rush attempts isn’t the most rush attempts, but the Huskers’ 2019 run rate stands out in Scott Frost’s oeuvre as a head coach. His first three teams ran the ball on 54.1%, 54.1% (both at UCF) and 53.5% of plays. In 2019 that number jumped to 62.7%.

That's the zoomed-out view. Running the football is key for this offense. "At the end of the day, if you can rely on a run game you’re going to put your team in good spots and then everything else works,” Frost said after Nebraska's loss at Minnesota. But given all the challenges the Huskers faced on that front in 2019, it still strikes me as strange to see a career-high run rate for the head coach.

To zoom in a bit, let's look at this by down. National run rates behaved like you'd imagine in 2019––it's easier to run on first down (knowing there are two downs still to go), second down might be a reflection of success or failure on first down, third down is a passing down for most teams and the run rates come up a bit again on fourth down as teams often don't go for it unless its fourth-and-short. The Big Ten was a little higher than the national average (i.e. heavier on the run) on all four downs.

Nebraska was, well, look . . .


The Huskers ranked as the 35th-most run heavy team on first down, 27th on second down and fifth on third down (trailing only the triple-option service academies and option-heavy Georgia Southern). That third-down run rate is pretty far above the norm for a non-option offense. Despite that, Nebraska's third down efficiency and explosiveness was perhaps higher than you would've thought for a 5-7 team. (The first two downs were a bigger issue.)

But downs alone aren't telling us everything about a situation. Football Ousiders breaks downs into two types based on distance. There are standard downs––any first down, second-and-6 or shorter and third- and fourth-and-4 or shorter––where the offense should have the freedom to run what it wants and, thus, an advantage. The opposite is a passing down––second-and-7 or longer, third- and fourth-and-5 or longer––and the defense should have the advantage of knowing most teams will pass.

Over his first three years as a head coach, Frost was a consistently contrarian play-caller. The average offense generally runs the ball about 60% of the time on standard downs and just under 35% of the time on passing downs. Here are those run rates for Frost's teams so far:

YEAR Std Downs Rush% Pass Downs Rush%
2016 55.7 36.1
2017 55.8 35.2
2018 55.6 36.2
2019 66.9 45.7

You could've said that the "Frost Offense" entering the 2019 season was one that, in the past, had run the ball less often than the average offense on standard downs (-7% between 2016–18). Those are the downs where running the ball entails the least risk. It was also an offense that ran the ball slightly more often (+2.5%) on passing downs where running the ball has the most risk. We're talking about small degrees of difference here, but it's still subverting expectations somewhat. And the numbers were remarkably consistent those first three years.

In 2019, however, the Huskers broke with that general trend and instead ran the ball. A lot. Nebraska ran about 12% more often on standard downs than the average offense and nearly 31% more often on passing downs. I guess you could say running it that often on passing downs last season, plenty of which were third downs, is the ultimate contrarian strategy.

But in this case––given that Nebraska's run numbers were higher across the board, both compared to the national average and previous Frost teams––it looks less like a decision and more like a reaction to a limitation.

What was that limitation? I don't know. In football it's almost never one thing. But I do know that this spring probably isn't going to bring us much closer to an answer. I’ve seen some pleas for Nebraska to run the ball more in 2020.

Unless the Huskers go back to a full-on triple option, I’m not sure it would be possible for Nebraska to run more than it did in 2019. What it really needs to do is run the ball better.

The Grab Bag

  • Great read from Erin Sorensen on who inspired Nebraska volleyball’s two captains and, more importantly, what it’s like for them to serve as inspirations now.
  • Derek Peterson’s Monday column looks at a spring spent in the expectation-free zone, Cam Mack’s tumultuous season and a key for the Nebraska women next year.
  • Greg Smith looks at how Nebraska’s 2020 recruiting stacks up against the rest of the Big Ten so far.
  • Nebraska baseball put together some wins at home, taking three of four from Columbia.

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