Nebraska Needs the Screen Game to Slow Arkansas State's Pass Rush
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Nebraska Needs the Screen Game to Slow Arkansas State’s Pass Rush

August 29, 2017

Ja’Von Rolland-Jones is 13.5 sacks away from being the NCAA’s career leader. He’s the reigning Sun Belt player of the year. He was a fixture in opposing teams’ backfields last season and he’s a fixture in the minds of the Huskers’ offensive coaching staff this week.

“You’ve got the nation’s leader in sacks, he’s gonna break the record,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Monday. “The guy is a good pass rusher so we’re going to have to have a lot of help going to where he is, making sure he’s covered up and not letting him go to town.”

Rolland-Jones currently has 30.5 recorded sacks to his name. Nebraska knows how important it’s going to be to keep him and the rest of a front line from Arkansas State with plenty of talent at bay. So much so that Langsdorf started this week’s scouting report with the Red Wolves proficiency for sacking the quarterback and getting into the backfield.

The Huskers need to be efficient on offense when they open the season on Saturday and an effective screen game will go a long way towards helping accomplish that goal.

“They come after you,” Langsdorf said. “So, if you can neutralize some of that rush by changing things up, moving the quarterback and the launch points in the screen game, I think those are all good things to have to be able to combat the pass rush.”

The screen game is something that has been emphasized all offseason, not just for the first game. And no, Nebraska’s not about to just throw screen passes and quick hitters all day long, but switching up what Rolland-Jones and the rest of the Arkansas State front line has to think about when rushing the passer can be an effective way to slow them down.

“When you do have great pass rushers,” running backs coach Reggie Davis said, “it probably does get emphasized even more to try and give those guys something else to think about.”

If Nebraska can at least get Rolland-Jones to hesitate for a split-second – to question whether he needs to pin his ears back or drop off – he’s lost a bit of his advantage. Langsdorf said the team is preparing as if he will move around on the line, but regardless of where he is, that split second can be the difference between a protected throw, and a hurried or forced mistake.

Line coach Mike Cavanaugh said the screen play as a whole is one that takes time to develop, both in preparation and in action, and the Huskers are getting better, but it’s just a matter of getting the play going and getting the back past that first defender and into space.

Part of that is the offensive line setting things up properly. Part of that also lies on the backs being able to catch it cleanly and turn it up field. That means no bobbles, no drops, no mistakes. Davis likes where his room is at in that regard.

“They’ve all done some extra work in the offseason catching the ball,” Davis said. “I’m seeing a lot less drops and a lot less double-catches out of the guys, they’re catching it the first time.”

Success in the screen game won’t single-handily win Nebraska the game on Saturday, but it can’t hurt its chances, especially if it means quarterback Tanner Lee is more insulated from hits – something he hasn’t had to deal with in more than 600 days – from one of the most dominant sack-getters in college football.

Vegas, and most rationale people, know that the Huskers likely won’t lose on Saturday, but that doesn’t mean Nebraska isn’t preparing for a fight.

“I think enough of those ‘upsets’ have happened during these guys’ lifetimes that it’s fresh in their minds,” Davis said. “They know that they have to come out and play their best ball if they want to win the game.”

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