Spring football starts in one week.
Leading up to that point, we’re looking at a bunch of different angles, storylines and questions that might loom large throughout the spring period.
Head coach Scott Frost and offensive coordinator Troy Walters are still in town, meaning the offense, schematically-speaking, will feel the same.
Quarterback Adrian Martinez is entering Year 2 as a Husker and Year 2 as a starter, meaning the trigger man will be the same.
And yet, the offense could look significantly different in 2019.
Studies by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly show returning receiving yardage has the strongest correlation to offensive success, followed by passing yardage, rushing yardage and offensive line starts. Nebraska, obviously, returns 100 percent of its passing production, but the rest of the pie is half gone, opening up some interesting discussions.
- Receiver production: 49.2 percent of yards, 50.6 percent of targets, 54.9 percent of catches
- Rushing production: 29.5 percent of yards, 31.7 percent of carries, 25 percent of touchdowns
- Offensive line starts: 33 of 60 starts in 2018
There are going to be new faces in new roles trying to build off of last season. But those new guys are also going to have to figure out old problems. Because, for all its success last season, the Husker offense had a few worrisome spots. Struggles in third-and-medium-extended situations handcuffed the scoring potential all throughout the 2018 campaign, failures running in short-yardage situations didn’t help anything and might theoretically become even more of an issue, and a not-as-explosive-as-you’d-think passing game just lost its big-play guy.
The following is a slightly more in-depth look at those three areas. Each feels like a crucial question that needs resolving, and while spring football might not give the viewing public an answer to them, it will be interesting to see what steps the Huskers make privately. Improvement here could go a long way towards the kind of offensive leap most expect.
Nebraska had a healthy percentage of third-and-short plays faced as an offense in 2018. A little over a third of its overall third-down attempts came within four yards of the line to gain and NU had a 61.1 percent conversion rate on those attempts.
Not great, but not terrible.
If first down worked, second down usually worked. The Huskers had 76 percent of their first downs coming within the first two plays, which was the ninth-best mark in college football. But if first down didn’t work, the Huskers idled. NU sported an average of almost 8 yards to gain on every third down (93rd) faced.
Of the 156 third downs NU faced, 102 were third-and-5 or longer. Nebraska had a 24.5 percent conversion rate on those. If they were 9 yards or more away from the sticks (which they were almost a third of the time), their chances of converting dropped to 13.3 percent.
If that’s number overload, here’s the simplest way to break it down: Nebraska wasn’t as good as it needs to be on third down. Just looking at basic conversion rates, the Huskers were in the bottom third of college football teams a year ago.
Playcalling featured roughly a 41/59 run-pass split, which makes sense considering the offense was always further away than it would have liked to be. Better early down success is the obvious “how to get better” answer here, but absent any unexpected schematic changes, that just means the execution needs to improve.
Being in Year 2 and starting the offseason with a baseline of understanding within the playbook could and probably will do Nebraska wonders in that regard. But, third-and-long situations are still going to pop up in games. Converting one such play in a seven-game stretch, like Nebraska did over its last seven games last season, can’t happen.
In those situations, you need a handful of individual playmakers you trust. The spring might be a good time for finding some of those. Because the main guy from last season is gone.
Senior wideout Stanley Morgan Jr. was the hot receiver on third downs last year. On 91 pass plays, he drew a team-best 20 targets, caught 11 and produced eight first downs. Junior-to-be J.D. Spielman had 14 targets, seven catches and five first downs. Spielman was a third-down magnet in 2017, so it’s likely he could be again in 2019, but it’ll be interesting to see if Martinez starts to develop the kind of chemistry he had with Morgan with another receiver this spring.
(If you’re curious how the remaining targets looked for returning guys: Devine Ozigbo with 11, Jack Stoll with eight, Maurice Washington with six, Kade Warner with four, Mike Williams with three, Jaron Woodyard with three.)
Remember after the Colorado game when offensive lineman Jerald Foster got up to the podium and talked about those two failed fourth-and-short runs?
"That hurts. It hurts," Foster said then. "We pride ourselves on those fourth-and-1s. I'm frustrated up here. I hope you can see it on my face.”
That would go on to be a recurring problem for Nebraska all throughout the 2018 campaign. Not necessarily fourth-down running — NU was 9-for-20 on fourths — but more the ability to get necessary yardage in short-yardage situations.
The Huskers ranked 118th in goalline success rate. They ranked 79th in power success rate (percentage of runs on third or fourth with 2 yards or less to go that gained the first or scored).
Martinez carried the ball 25 times on third down for the Huskers, leaving the remaining 40 rushing attempts logged last season for the running backs. Ozigbo had 20 of those, and now he’s gone. Nebraska doesn’t currently have a bruiser tailback on campus.
One might be coming in the fall in JUCO signee Dedrick Mills, but he’ll arrive late to the party, so to speak.
Nebraska was more run-heavy than maybe was to be expected right away last season. The offense went from 122nd in rushing attempts per game in 2017 to 63rd in 2018. In two years at UCF, the Knights were never in the top 50, but Nebraska might be trending that direction.
Given that, and the reputation of the Big Ten conference as a whole, it’s possible being able to effectively power-run the football is a priority this offseason. Who leads that charge in the spring? Washington, off-field situation aside, doesn’t really fit that “power back” billing and neither does early enrollee Wandale Robinson.
Sophomore Jaylin Bradley showed up on the “Five Sophomores to Watch this Spring” list last week, and in terms of physical stature, he seems a likely option as a goalline back. Whether he gets that opportunity will be another story, but even that kind of a decision in and of itself would say a lot about where the Huskers are leaning.
Martinez is big enough to be a Tim Tebow-like runner in those short-yardage situations, but is he too valuable for that? Finding a different option seems important.
Then there’s the offensive line side of the equation because they can’t be left out. Throughout winter conditioning, spring ball and fall camp, there might not be a group with more to gain than the offensive line. Literally. Frost said the other guys looked bigger after the Iowa game. That can start to change this offseason. And sheer size and strength are at their most important when you’re lining up across from your man on fourth down and all you need to stay on the field is 1 yard.
Finding the New Big Play
This continues to be a talking point because it’s just such a crucial piece of the Huskers’ offense. Morgan was fourth in the Big Ten last year in 10-yard receptions with 38, second in 20- and 30-yard receptions with 18 and nine. His 14.3 yards per catch was the best mark of anyone with at least 10 catches on the team and his 9.0 yards per target was the best of anyone with at least 10 targets.
Spielman had the better catch rate and efficiency numbers, Morgan was the more combustible of the two. In tandem, they work perfectly. When you separate them, not so much. The Huskers are going to need a new name to step up.
In terms of 10, 20, and 30-yard pass plays overall last season, Nebraska was an average offense. Looking at explosive play percentage in the passing game would paint the Huskers as a top-40 outfit, nationally, but the barrier for those plays is 15 yards. That’s not quite what I’m getting at. Morgan had 18 of Nebraska’s 41 20-yard receptions and nine of its 19 30-yard receptions.
The offense last season was buoyed by a rushing attack that ranked seventh in the country in S&P+. If there’s any kind of step backward and the offensive improvement is still going to come, it’ll obviously need to be in the passing department.
Finding one or two deep threats this spring who can consistently stretch a defense would help that greatly.
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.