Nebraska Cornhuskers head coach Scott Frost gives Nebraska Cornhuskers quarterback Logan Smothers some instructions during practice
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Husker Spring Game Storylines: A Cagey or High-Flying Passing Game?

April 27, 2021

The week has finally arrived. Nebraska’s 2021 Red-White Spring Game is on Saturday. In the run up to the game, we’ve got a few storylines to potentially watch for this weekend, expanded on a little more than normal. One per day. The first was a look at Jaquez Yant. Here’s the second:

How much of the passing game will we see?

Nebraska can go one of two ways. 

The first: it can hold its cards incredibly close to the vest, wanting to save as much for the regular season this fall as possible, give us a few series with the top guys on offense out on the field, one or two deep shots to Wyatt Liewer or Oliver Martin, and then call it a day for the top of the depth chart and roll out the youth and the walk-on program to close out the last 70% of the spring game. 

The second: it can capture some momentum in terms of public perception, give everyone a decent look at starting quarterback Adrian Martinez, give an extended dual between backups Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg on either side, and bomb moon shots up and down the field all day. 

As we know, most coaches are just salivating at the thought of getting spring game tape of their opponents to vigorously scout for the upcoming season. 

As we also know, the previous statement is highly facetious. The spring game is a scrimmage. A glorified practice. If Illinois is going to base its entire scout for the Aug. 28 opener off of what Nebraska does in its 15th practice of the spring, that would be laughable at best and dereliction of duty on the part of Bret Bielema at worst. 

Nebraska could show a bunch of gadget plays and probably be fine. 

It probably won’t (that would be fun to see), but you get the idea. 

(Completely irrelevant side bar: if a team ran, let’s say, 20 gadget plays in a spring game, from the perspective of an opposing team looking in, would that almost feel like diminishing returns? Surely no one outside of Boise, Idaho, is going to run 20 trick plays in one game, so would defenses really gain a leg up with so many in the back of their minds? It wouldn’t be like one where you can tell the boys, ‘OK, we’ve seen this before, this is in their bag.’ What are you gonna do, scheme up how to stop 20 different variations of the Fumblerooski and the flea flicker? I almost want a coach to do this purely for the troll job it would be. Fifty percent of the plays run, every random concept thrown out there during strategy sessions.)

You can make arguments for both approaches by Nebraska. The more cagey outlook on showcasing the offense seems a little more likely, but Nebraska could enjoy a boost if it goes out and throws caution to the literal wind. 

The Husker passing game left a lot to be desired last season. Martinez’s 71.5% completion rate was fourth-best nationally and a single-season program record at Nebraska, but his 7 yards per attempt average ranked 70th, 14 spots behind Patrick O’Brien in a bit of ironic comedy. 

In the Big Ten, it had fewer 20-plus-yard pass plays than everyone but Wisconsin. In terms of explosive play rate (20-plus as a function of passes thrown; some folks use 15, I stick with 20), Nebraska connected on a deep shot on 7.9% of its attempts, good for 98th nationally and better than only Iowa, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Rutgers in the league. 

The aerial attack was of the nickel and dime variety. Receivers were occasionally open downfield, but for a number of reasons Nebraska didn’t find them. Improvement in this department could, when it’s all said and done, be the biggest difference between another struggle of a year and finally getting back on the right side of the win column.

“Last year in games, I don’t know if that was the first read in a lot of our games,” Martin said earlier this spring. “Now there’s more of an emphasis on if there is a vertical route in a concept, give it a look even if it’s not supposed to be the first read.”

Will Nebraska air it out on Saturday? Will it show off Martinez’s arm, considering it has drawn serious praise from coaches this spring? 

“He’s always had great zip and arm strength—I think NFL arm strength—but the thing I’ve noticed is he’s taken his accuracy to another step,” offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said. “When he has to put touch on the ball, he’s putting touch on the ball. That’s why we’re hitting on more deep balls than we have in the past.”

Perhaps a decent chunk of the fanbase is in the “show me, don’t tell me” camp as they await the start of Scott Frost’s fourth season in charge. Nebraska is 12-20 to this point under the former national title-winning quarterback, and some of the goodwill he entered with is being strained just a bit. 

There is the potential for some faith to be gained back if Nebraska were to come out and toss the ball around the yard, look good doing so, and once again show off the talented crop of receivers it has. 

Of course, Nebraska doesn’t owe anyone anything and it doesn’t have to care what folks on Twitter say. If it feels it has sufficiently made progress as a passing unit this spring and only cares about getting in and out of Saturday’s scrimmage healthy, more power to it. The program will be judged by what it does on fall Saturdays more than a random spring Saturday.

That being said, it would foretell a pretty high level of confidence in this offense’s ability if Nebraska came out guns hot. Is that an important or beneficial thing to have? 

I suspect we’ll see.

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