Our countdown of the 10 most intriguing Huskers of the 2022 season is back with the top five.
If you need a refresher on the players so far in the countdown, you can find them all right here:
No. 10 Tommi Hill | No. 9 Marques Buford Jr. | No. 8 Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda | No. 7 Trey Palmer | No. 6 Anthony Grant | No. 5 Ty Robinson | No. 4 OL Turner Corcoran/Teddy Prochazka
Before we dive into discussing our latest pick, let’s clarify something first: What do we mean by intriguing? Oxford Languages defines intriguing as arousing one’s curiosity or interest. In other words, fascinating. Which 10 Huskers fascinate you the most heading into the season? That’s what we’re trying to figure out.
Today’s entry moves off the field because it’s kind of hard not to at least once with the 2022 Huskers.
When hiring a new coordinator, the bright, young, next-big-thing makes intuitive sense the way nothing else can. It’s like upgrading to new technology—there’s no guarantee you’ll like it more than the old technology, but it comes with a wave of new feature and is cutting edge for the moment and that’s easy to get excited about.
Hire a 65-year-old who has been coaching for 40-plus years, and the reaction is something else. Not worse, of course, perhaps just less likely to spark that “oh, I get it” feeling.
Most of the bright, young, next-big-things were mentioned when Nebraska had an opening last winter because names like that always get mentioned when everyone’s throwing darts. A name that wasn’t really mentioned until a deal was nearly done? Nebraska’s actual pick, Mark Whipple.
Here was a New York guy—rare enough on its own in college football circles—and a Brown alum. He was the head coach at UMass, twice, and made three NFL stops in the Rust Belt. He has given the city of Pittsburgh two great quarterback gifts—mentoring Ben Roethlisberger through his early years with the Steelers and then, over the last three years, turning Kenny Pickett (drafted by the Steelers) into a Heisman Trophy finalist. Should Pickett turn out to be a solid pro, Whipple should probably have a statue in Pittsburgh. That’s where Nebraska enters the picture––with Whipple, the football lifer, coming off a career year coordinating Pitt’s offense.
That’s not even a slight exaggeration. The 2021 Panthers, ACC champs, averaged 41.4 points per game to rank third nationally. The next closest scoring average for a Whipple offense in college was the 34.5 Massachusetts managed in 1998. The Minutemen won the I-AA national title that season.
In my book, that’s the definition of intriguing and why, despite not being a player, Whipple lands so highly on this list.
He inherits a Nebraska offense that was hardly broken, at least from a yards perspective. The 2021 Huskers ranked 18th in yards per play, but just 71st in points per game. That difference between rankings, minus-53 spots, was the second-worst in the country last season, out(un)performed only by TCU (10th in yards per play, 65th in points).
Whipple’s Panthers ranked 25th in yards per play in 2021 and third in scoring, a plus-22 differential that was 17th best. Maybe Nebraska’s play here is as simple as that. If there’s a defining trait of the Husker offense the last four years, it’s that it has always gotten a crappy exchange rate on the yards it has gained.
Maybe it’s more of an experience play. There probably isn’t much Whipple hasn’t seen on a football field over his career.
Most likely, it’s some combination thereof. Nebraska needed something new on offense, and that can come from a coach with old-school experience. But ideas are only part of it as there are a handful of on-field complications to work through in Lincoln.
Nebraska has to settle on a new quarterback and replace three of its top four receivers. Its leading returning rusher had fewer than 500 yards while playing in 10 games. The offensive line had a hard time protecting the passer, ranking 104th in sack rate, and that might be the big one because Whipple’s experience and major accomplishments point mostly towards passing.
From 2019 to 2021, Whipple’s three seasons at Pitt, the Panthers threw the ball 56.8%, 55.4% and 54.1% of the time (counting sacks-allowed as passes). From 2019 to 2021, Nebraska ran the ball 59.5%, 56.4% and 55.4% of the time. Maybe you could view that as two offenses trending ever so slightly towards one another, Nebraska a little less run each year, Pitt a little less pass, and something close to “balance” is achieved.
Or maybe Whipple wins out and Nebraska really is a pass-first team right away in 2022 despite virtually no continuity between the various pass-and-catch poles on the roster. We’ll see.
Perhaps the real difference between hiring the bright, young, next-big-thing and a football lifer is the unknowns imbalance. For a rising young coach with good ideas in a good situation, maybe it seems like there are no unknowns. Everything’s good unless everything’s just a small sample size, though the latter rarely comes up even if it’s possible most of the time.
The football lifer offers a more complete story, good and bad. You can see that Whipple’s first Miami offense in 2009 improved its scoring-average ranking by 20 spots to No. 30. You can also see that his first Pitt offense ranked 112th in points per game in 2019, down 18 spots from the year before. Everyone knows more about the past and maybe less about the future because of it. With a larger sample size, highs and lows are inevitable.
Nebraska chose the second path, which means people like me—and maybe you, too—don’t know much about what to expect on offense in 2022.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.