Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

Mark Whipple Sees Opportunity in Installing Offense With Potential Starters out With Injury

March 30, 2022

Before Nebraska’s most recent scrimmage on Saturday, the second of the spring, the coaches did something new.

The team held a walk-through. After all, the closest thing the Huskers will get to a game-like atmosphere until late August is taking place next weekend with the annual Red-White spring game.

Mark Whipple liked what he saw in the walk-through.

“I thought there was an aura of confidence, but a business-like attitude, which is what you want,” the Huskers’ first-year offensive coordinator said. “You don’t want them all being uptight.”

It’s been a spring of install for Whipple and his offense. He’s seen good and bad, and has had to navigate around the bad. While it may seem like an issue to those outside the program that multiple potential starters aren’t currently full participants at practice as they deal with injuries, Whipple doesn’t see it that way.

The veteran coach of 40-plus years instead views it as an opportunity. He’s not frustrated that offensive linemen Turner Corcoran and Teddy Prochazka aren’t doing contact drills at practice as they’re still in the rehab process. Or that the tight end room has been ravaged by injury. Travis Vokolek won’t be ready for contact until the summer and is only doing drills on air while Thomas Fidone II, Chis Hickman and goal-line and short-yardage specialist, Chancellor Brewington, are all out with injury, too.

“It’s not as frustrating as if we didn’t have those guys, you know? They’re going to be back, we know they’re good players,” Whipple said. “So to me, it’s a positive, we’ll just try to be positive with it—we’re building depth.”

Building depth was a key takeaway from Whipple’s appearance in front of the media on Wednesday. He loves the fact that Nebraska has enough bodies to run two “thud” sessions and 7-on-7s at once. That isn’t possible at other programs around the country, but Nebraska’s roster is one of the largest in the country, so it is in Lincoln.

More bodies mean more practice reps. More practice reps mean more players being comfortable in the offense, whether that’s a former three-star recruit and perceived starter or a walk-on from Aurora, Nebraska, who suddenly finds himself with an opportunity to impress and maybe get game reps this fall, like Nate Boerkircher.

“We have enough players here, we have enough with the walk-ons and those guys that a lot of guys are getting reps. So they’re getting better and that builds your depth,” Whipple said. “We didn’t have that at places I’ve been, certainly UMass, Pitt, we didn’t have that at Miami, we didn’t have enough guys when I was there, so that’s really helped. But I told those guys, you’re really lucky to be here, with a chance to get on film and get better.

“So I think our depth has grown and we know we’ll get those guys back come the summer.”

Of all the position groups that should be excited to play in a Whipple offense, the quarterbacks and receivers should be at the top of the list. But so should the tight ends. Whipple has had good ones at the position, which is becoming more dynamic as offenses continue to evolve.

He had one at UMass, Adam Breneman, who caught 134 passes for 1,572  yards and 12 touchdowns in two seasons with the Minutemen after hauling in 15 for 186 and three scores in two seasons at Penn State. Last season at Pittsburgh, Whipple had Lucas Krull and Gavin Bartholomew. Krull, a senior, caught 38 passes for 451 yards and six touchdowns while Bartholomew, a true freshman, added 27 catches for 317 yards and four scores.

“I don’t have a number, the ball goes to what the defense is giving you,” Whipple said when asked how tight ends factor into his offense. “Certainly we can get guys in certain areas. I think the size of those guys can help you in the red zone. That would be a place where 6-5, 6-6, 6-7 down there where the windows are tighter and you have to be physical on catching the ball and the speed is not as important as learning about leverage on defenders and those things.”

Nebraska’s offense didn’t have trouble gaining yards last year. The Huskers ranked second in the Big Ten in total yards per game with 446.6. But yards don’t win football games. Points do. And Big Red dipped down to sixth in the conference in points per game at 27.9. If the red-zone conversion rate of 77.36%—that ranked 106th in the nation—had been better, Nebraska would’ve likely won more than three wins.

How does an offense get better at scoring touchdowns inside the 20-yard line? Being able to run the ball and gain tough yards when the field shrinks has always been the best way, Whipple said.

That’s where offensive lines come into play. Nebraska has plenty of questions there, but it does at running back too. Whipple has seen growth with running backs coach Bryan Applewhite’s guys.

“I think our backs have gotten better. We’re a little more physical than we’ve done,” Whipple said. “Early in the year, coach Applewhite has done a really good job with those guys with pad level. All of them are running a little bit lower and a little bit more balanced and playing for the extra yard.

“We did have a fumble in the scrimmage last week, but it’s really the only one we’ve had I think in a lot of tough sessions in there where it’s thud, it’s tough thud, there’s live. I think we’ve done a good job of securing the ball with those guys.”

Nebraska’s offense has gone more toward a pro-style system, Whipple said, meaning receivers are playing on both the left and right sides instead of keeping them to one. Trey Palmer, Omar Manning, Alante Brown and Oliver Martin have been playing at both inside and outside receiver spots this spring.

Doing it that way builds depth.

“I think they’ve done a good job of learning concepts and then learning how we get the plays in that way,” Whipple said. “So that’s been a smoother transition for those receivers than it was like the first week where everybody was kind of worried about it, it’s gone without any issues in the two scrimmages. Matter of fact, the second scrimmage was much more just a little cleaner and everything else, and I expect the same thing when we get into camp, it’ll be the same way.”

The spring game is something that Whipple isn’t too worried about. It’s not a make-or-break practice for most players, he said, especially experienced ones. Thompson and Palmer are two examples of experienced players who Whipple isn’t going to judge harshly if they have a bad spring game. Both aren’t strangers to playing on big stages—Thompson played Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry while Palmer was just in the SEC at LSU.

“The way spring games have gone now, in my mind, we want to get out of it healthy,” Whipple said. “It’s like, is that going to make a difference? It does on some guys, but I think it’s more for the younger guys who haven’t gotten as many reps.”

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