When the Huskers moved over to Memorial Stadium for their first practice of fall camp on the big field, there was a pretty interesting juxtaposition taking place.
Whether by design or mere coincidence, as the Huskers first-team offense lined up to scrimmage the first-team defense, highlights of the Tommy Armstrong-led 2016 squad played on every screen in the stadium. While new starter Tanner Lee marched down the field on his first drive, dissecting the secondary with pinpoint passes, Armstrong was running around defenses.
The scheme hasn’t changed from a season ago, but the offense looks drastically different. And so far, the results have been positive.
Lee missed twice on his opening possession. The first, on an out route to the sideline, was a drop by wideout De’Mornay Pierson-El. The second, a perfectly thrown ball across the field that safety Antonio Reed tipped with an athletic leap through the air.
And when Lee hit, he was on the money every single time. The most impressive coming on a throw over the middle to emerging tight end Tyler Hoppes. Hoppes wasn’t open, but Lee put it in the one spot where his man was the only one who could get to it.
“It’s great to have an athletic tight end,” Lee said of Hoppes, who had to turn his body in the air to snag the pass. “Especially on a third down in a two-minute situation like that, I feel comfortable being able to throw him out there and he’s going to make a catch and make a big play. It’s really nice to have him out there.”
Lee’s confidence hasn’t just grown with Hoppes, but with all of his receivers. Talk to the Tulane transfer for long, and you’ll pick up pretty quickly that preparation is important to him. When asked about what he’s seen in the wide receiver group, Lee praised the work they put in before camp even started and said they’ve been ready to hit the ground running.
“Just through the work they’ve put in this summer and just making sure they’re ready for camp as far as being able to get in and out of the huddle and run the plays correctly, built that confidence a little bit going into camp,” he said. “As they figure out the playbook, they get more comfortable and they can allow their talents to take over a little bit more and just play the game.”
It’s also helped that Lee has two guys on the edges, in Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan Jr., who have been there, done that and come back with stories. They know what he wants and they know what he expects. In turn, Lee knows exactly what he’s going to be getting from them on each play.
“With those two guys in the huddle,” he said, “I know they’re probably going to get open, I know they’re going to know their routes and any adjustments and things like that.”
Add it all up, and you get an offense that has been quick-triggered and effective.
“I think (Lee’s) done a nice job playing fast and making good decisions for the most part,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “He’s really steady, he’s the same guy every day. He comes to work ready to go, so I’ve been pleased with that.”
It’s not a finished product yet, though. Lee said the unit’s motto is “day by day,” and they’re working to consistently improve and find ways to get better. One area in particular that’s still a work in progress? The screen game.
“That’s something we’re definitely trying to improve on,” Lee said. “It’s just reps, you’ve got to continually rep that. As the backs get a feel for where the lineman are going to be and turning around at the right time and getting the ball, and for me to put the ball where they can turn and run, is all important.”
Running backs coach Reggie Davis said the backs are learning, but it’s going to take time. Nebraska has beefed up the number of overall routes the running backs have had to learn in the passing game from a season ago, according to tailback Mikale Wilbon, and the backs just need time to learn all the finer details.
“With screens, especially the way we run them, there’s a lot of moving parts,” Davis said. “It’s pretty detailed as far as where the sidewalks are for those screens. We tried a couple of them together, but there are a lot of different ones and there are a lot of different nuances for each one.”
Lee added the screen game is “extremely important” to the offense this season and something that will come around as guys’ comfort levels improve.
“I think we’ve been doing a great job of pushing each other,” Lee said. “Especially the defense pushing us and us pushing them. I think we’ve gotten better these nine, 10 days we’ve been going at it and there’s been a lot of good stuff.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.