Nebraska Has a Death Lineup for the Football Field
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska Has a Death Lineup for the Football Field

August 12, 2019

The same Friday column we’ve been writing for the last few months, just at a new time and with the “Love or Hate” name scrapped.

The hope for this column when we started it was that it would be a place for breaking down little nuances of a scheme or deviations of a play call across a number of sports. If Fred Hoiberg takes a traditional baseline out-of-bounds play, tweaks it, and then runs it a handful of times to success over multiple games, this will be the place it gets written about. If Scott Frost dials up the same RPO play against multiple fronts one week and then tweaks it the next after a self-scout, this will be the place it gets written about.

That goal won’t change moving forward. This will still be a column and a space to talk about cool things as they unfold, or, if the situation warrants it, dumb things. So let’s get to it.

A Hellish Situation to Be In

Forgive me if I’m getting a little too ahead of myself, but I want to pose a scenario. You’re the defensive coordinator. 

It’s second-and-5, meaning theoretically everything in the playbook is on the table. So you’re already in a spot you don’t want to be in. Nebraska has just run the ball with Maurice Washington up the middle for the 5-yarder on first down and is quickly getting set for second. You cannot substitute because the Huskers haven’t.

And instead of lining Washington up in the backfield like it did on first down, Nebraska gives you this look.

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Wan’Dale Robinson can wind up in the backfield a number of different ways. The same goes for Maurice Washington out wide. How’d he get out wide? Either guy can line up where they are or motion there. That’s the first part of this headache, because Scott Frost loves window dressings and using pre-snap movement to either force a defense to tip its coverage or simply get confused and line up screwy. 

Now, comes the other part. Now you have the maddeningly unnerving task of figuring out what the heck the Huskers are about to run out of this. 

Let’s do a quick headcount: there’s a deadly speed receiver who is a couple of injuries away from back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons to begin his career that you have to contend with in the slot, there’s a big-bodied deep threat to the left, there’s a running back with receiver skills to the right, a dynamic tight end and a wide receiver playing running back. 

Nebraska can simply hand the ball to Robinson on a sweep action or an inside zone and see what happens. It can run a Frost favorite, the QB Dart, and give Adrian Martinez the option to handoff or keep. It can run any number of straight passing concepts with five capable receivers on the field. It can run an RPO that’s either a Robinson run, a Martinez run or a JD Spielman bubble. It can run an RPO that ends in a Stoll block-and-release route over the top. It can run a jet sweep to Spielman coming across the formation.

You will ultimately end up replicating the Lane Kiffin scene where he throws his hands in the air before the ball is even snapped because you know you’re in trouble regardless of what happens. Because you know Nebraska can keep this same personnel grouping on the field for the entirety of the drive and run a different concept every play. 

That’s the end goal with this offense and it’s the reason fans have seen Nebraska recruit guys like Robinson, Washington, Miles Jones, Rahmir Johnson, and Jaron Woodyard in the first two cycles with this new coaching staff. Put as many multi-dimensional talents on the field as possible and Nebraska can play with the kind of tempo that doesn’t allow the opposition the ability to sub while also maintaining flexibility on its own end. 

Watching Robinson spend more time as a running back than a receiver during the first open practice of fall camp, and then hearing running backs coach Ryan Held say Robinson is absolutely going to play in the backfield set this train of thought in motion and now it’s all I’ve been able to think about since. 

Because though I don’t know exactly what that Husker Death Lineup will look like or how much it will actually be used, I do know with near certainty you, valued reader serving as the hypothetical defensive coordinator for this exercise, will be hating your life.

Two Trustable Bodies

“We have more depth,” said offensive line coach Greg Austin about his group on Wednesday. 

That’s a good thing, right?

“We have more trustable bodies is the best way to say it, more guys that you can trust know what they’re doing, know what the expectation is, what the standard is and are more familiar with what we’re doing,” he added.

OK, that’s for sure a good thing. 

Whereas last year Austin felt like he had six or seven trustable linemen, this year he already feels like he has 12. Trent Hixson pushing his way into a starting role as a third-year sophomore walk-on guard helps that. AJ Forbes, another walk-on, being a guy the staff seems comfortable with at either center or guard helps too. When you get walk-ons to contribute on the o-line, it’s a big deal.

A few other guys are probably headed for rotational roles up front (Christian Gaylord and Bryce Benhart as tackles) but I want to focus on two guys in the middle. 

Nebraska entered this offseason with a clear preference at center but really very few answers to a number of questions. I’d argue Nebraska had no trustable bodies at center back in January. With fall camp getting underway, it looks like it will have at least two. Which puts the Huskers in a pretty good spot, because it can take two different paths en route to a Week 5 season-altering showdown with Ohio State.

Path No. 1: Redshirt freshman Cameron Jurgens has already been compared by Frost to Dave Rimington, and that’s pretty significant considering Rimington is a guy who needs no introduction or qualifying statement because anyone reading this knows how good a football player he was. Jurgens, according to his father coach, has the best blocking instincts on the team.

Jurgens being the kind of center Frost envisions elevates the already high ceiling for this offense down the road. Him just not being a net-negative in his first year still allows the unit to take The Leap. If he’s healthy through fall camp and ready to go once the season begins, Nebraska can throw him into the deep end against competition is should smoke and get him all the necessary reps to get ready for conference ball. 

By Sept. 28, a lot of the kinks have already been worked out and he’s played in two road environments.

Path No. 2: Jurgens isn’t quite ready to go by the time the season draws near. He could play against South Alabama, but the preference would be to give him a little more time. Instead, the Huskers roll with Lil’ Will Farniok, another redshirt freshman, who on paper is Jurgens’ equal, at center. Farniok plays the first three games until they reach blowout status (I expect they will) and the first-teamers are called off. Then Jurgens gets mop-up duty, which are still snaps.

By Sept. 21, with the Huskers preparing for the Big Ten opener on the road against Illinois, Nebraska can either decide to stick with Farniok if the offense is rolling or bring in Jurgens, who has been given an extra three weeks to get his body ready, and give him a full road game before Ohio State beckons.

The first path begins Jurgens’ career and gets him a solid bank of reps. The second gives the Huskers two ready-to-go centers and they can just ride the hot hand.

The “if you have two you have none” adage only works with quarterbacks. Regardless of which path Nebraska takes, I actually like the center situation as it currently stands, and that’s a testament to “Lil Will” not being so little anymore. Frost talks about the younger Farniok brother maybe as much as any other lineman, he’s up to 300 pounds and taking first-team snaps to begin fall camp.

The closer we get to the season, the more I’m starting to think the Huskers just need average center play. With two strong tackles, a star at quarterback and a top-flight scheme, that’s enough.

Happier Head Coach

Scott Frost seems happier doesn’t he? And that sunny disposition says something deeper about where the team’s at, doesn’t it? 

How many times last season did the head coach sound like this?

Aside from the surface-level “everybody’s on the same page” talk that has dominated the last several months, it would seem Nebraska is starting to coalesce as an offense. When I think about the stuff Frost enjoys from a football standpoint, I’m thinking about creative game-planning sessions and fun practices. 

If his mood in post-practice media settings is more chipper, that leads me to believe he’s getting to actually have those playbook meetings where they talk about more than just basic install. Or he’s getting to dial up some exotic stuff in practice. And he’s enjoying what he sees. Or he’s just enjoying this group more.

"I like this team a lot better going into this year,” Frost said on Aug. 1. “Just seeing the look on these guys' faces when I walk past them in the hallway, just seeing the guys hanging out together, addressing each other, being in the building, there is a different feel this year. More of a winning feel. A feel I am used to. I can’t wait to go to work with these guys.”

That doesn’t mean he didn’t like last year’s team — he and the rest of the coaching staff were and still are very fond of the outgoing captains and a large percentage of that senior class — but more that this one isn’t as much of a drain. 

The increasingly-frustrated coach Frost was becoming as 0-2 became 0-3 and 0-4 last season isn’t the guy Frost wants to be. It wasn’t a guy he enjoyed being. He’s a player’s coach at heart, but he showed he isn’t shy about saying what needs to be said even if it’s hard to hear. That he’s out here saying things like “dadgummit” early in camp and talking about needing to rein players in rather than urge them to cut it loose is about as good an indication of where this team is at as we can get.

"I expected it to be better and it's better," Frost said Friday. “Every position looks better than it did a year ago. The speed of practice looks better than it did a year ago. I'm having a lot of fun coaching this team. Last year there were times it was hard coaching the team, but this year everybody shows up with a smile on their face. I don't see one person that I don't want to talk to and they're having fun.”

An Attacking Approach

In case you missed it, the Huskers’ soccer team began its 2019 season Saturday night with a 4-0 win over Nebraska-Omaha in front of a pretty good crowd at Hibner Field. It was the first of two exhibition matches before the official season-opener against Kansas on Aug. 22 and the Mavericks were well outclassed on the pitch, so it’s hard to draw a ton of conclusions, but there is one change from last season that’s particularly intriguing.

That’s the move of senior Brenna Ochoa from the midfield to the wing. Ochoa played a large percentage of her minutes as a 10 last season. On Saturday night, she began the game as a forward. 

Her and fellow senior Meg Brandt served as the seven and 11 (wingers) and swapped sides fairly regularly. With striker Emma Marcus’ ability to drop into space and be more than just a target forward up top, it opened up lanes for Brandt and Ochoa to make runs inside. Both had the freedom to roam and Nebraska’s attack benefitted from it. 

At one point last season the Huskers sat atop the Big Ten standings and looked almost assured of an NCAA Tournament bid. But October rolled around and the offense grew cold. Nebraska posted a 1-4-2 record over its last seven games and scored just five goals. With the graduation of its leading goal-scorer Faith Carter, finding a new way to manufacture offense will be key. 

Adding Ochoa, arguably the Huskers’ most creative player with the ball at her feet, to the attack and giving her more freedom to push forward is an exciting potential solution to the problem.

“Brenna’s such an explosive player,” said senior defender Sinclaire Miramontez. “She’s one of our most dangerous attackers. She can do it all. 

“I think she’s going to be the player to watch in the Big Ten this year.”

Especially in this new role.

We Don’t Deserve Doc

We really don’t.

His is a Twitter account that has almost reached “Tweet notifications on” status. The Husker assistant is living his best life in Italy right now and we’re all just blessed enough to be able to enjoy the ride.

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