Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Route Depths, Run Tracks and Bonehead Mistakes: Here’s What Spring Practice Looks Like Under Mark Whipple

February 28, 2022

Before Mark Whipple could even bark out a play in his first spring practice as Nebraska’s new offensive coordinator, he needed to know where to stand first.

“Those guys (the players) did good, because I didn’t know where the hell I was going,” joked Whipple, a veteran coach of 40-plus years but a first-time play caller in Lincoln. “I’ve been doing it one way for three years (at Pittsburgh), I did it one way at UMass for five, Cleveland for two. All the sudden I went out and I’m thinking about the plays, I’m going, ‘I don’t even know where to stand, do I stand this way?'”

Thankfully, an equipment manager guided Whipple to the area where Nebraska’s offense usually practices. Once that happened, the real work began.

“There was some sloppy out there, and it wasn’t all on the field,” head coach Scott Frost said. “We have some new coaches who need to learn where to go for each period and how we do things at practice. We ran a lot of things, and guys have to get familiar with things. We need to get familiar with new concepts and ideas and terms and signals and places to go in practice, and that’s players and coaches alike. That was kind of expected today, but it’ll get better fast.”

Nebraska’s offense will be a collaborative effort between Whipple and Frost, who is expected to take more of a CEO approach this season—less time spent with the offense, more with everything else. But the two are putting their heads together to come up with the best schemes and concepts for the players they have.

During these film sessions, they’re sharing ideas, learning from each other and looking at other teams and leagues. That includes some concepts that have been popular in the NFL, which Whipple and Frost want to use as a selling point to recruits—come to Lincoln and play in an offense that will prepare you for the next level.

Whipple didn’t have the athletes to do that at previous stops like Brown, an Ivy League school, where he had 10-12 guys move on to become doctors, he said. That isn’t to say Nebraska doesn’t have doctors, but it’s different than at Brown. Big Red has speed to burn on the outside.

“They’ll watch the Kansas City Chiefs, we’ll take cutups from that point. The same plays, the same routes,” Whipple said.

There doesn’t need to be drastic changes with the ball, though. The concepts that Whipple and Frost want to use are proven to work, Whipple said. Nebraska was good at moving the ball between the 20-yard lines last season. The Huskers ranked 22nd in the nation in total yards per game with 446.6, but they were 106th in red-zone conversions at 77.36%.

Look at the offenses that Frost has been a part of at Oregon and Central Florida, and the ones Whipple has been a part of, too, most recently at Pitt where he groomed a Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback in Kenny Pickett.

But Pickett isn’t walking through the Memorial Stadium gates any time soon. On Monday, the offense was separated into two groups in an effort to get the max amount of reps for the players. Frost said he was “with the young guys”. Casey Thompson, Nebraska’s high-profile quarterback transfer from Texas, was the one who took the first snap with the other group, Whipple said.

When asked why Thompson was the one who took the first snap, Whipple was quite direct with his answer.

“Cause he’s No. 1 now. I think he’s the best one right now,” he said. “Might change tomorrow. Nothing set in stone.”

The way Thompson, who threw 30 touchdowns in four seasons as a Longhorn, has gone about his business since getting to Lincoln has impressed Whipple.

“He was the best guy in the skelly (skeleton) stuff that they get on air,” Whipple said. “I didn’t get to see it, but I had those guys give me their stats and what they did. What I saw today, attitude wise and talent, we have enough there to be more than successful.”

Chubba Purdy, the transfer from Florida State, had a “nick” and didn’t get much action, Whipple said. The Huskers’ two scholarship quarterbacks who were here last year—Logan Smothers and Heinrich Haarberg—are doing well, too, and got praise from their OC.

But this is spring. No one is safe from making mistakes on day one. There were plenty on Monday and there will be more to come. When they don’t mean wins or losses, mistakes are a good thing, Whipple said. They provide teaching moments.

Where were your eyes? What’d you see?

“We had some success today, we had a couple bonehead mistakes,” Whipple said. “I thought that was one good thing—we’ll see how a couple guys who made mistakes, threw a couple interceptions, you wanna see how that guy handles it afterwards. What’s the next play like? And more times than not I’ll go right back to a throw to let those guys know I’ve got confidence in them.”

Whipple enjoys spring ball in college. It gives him the opportunity to develop and grow players, which isn’t something he said you get to do in the NFL. Right now, it’s about learning the personnel he’ll be coaching. The first two days are helmets only. Starting on Wednesday, the players will add more pads.

Whipple wants his players to play fast, but also have situational awareness. What’s the down and distance? How much time is left on the clock? When do they need to go out of bounds?

On Monday, Whipple said the offense worked on the two-minute drill. It was also a day for the offensive linemen and running backs to learn the running and blocking tracks for inside zone runs. When the third day hits on Wednesday and the players are more padded up, the offense will work on gap-scheme runs, or more “hardball” as Whipple called it, with using different audibles and cadence.

As is the case every spring with every team in the country, there were good moments and bad.

“How do you handle those situations? That’s why we try to put them in a pressure situation right away,” Whipple said. “We weren’t successful today—we missed a field goal and should have got it down more, but there was a lot of teaching in there. Then we turned the ball over when normally we would’ve run it. But that’s the teaching part that we can get to and get better.”

In order to help the players play fast and get as many reps as possible, the terminology has largely stayed the same. There’s been some screw-ups, which Whipple admitted he made a couple times, but that’s part of it.

“I called a couple things that would have been the way I’ve called it since I was with Philadelphia in 2008, it just comes out,” Whipple said. “So I gotta clean that stuff up. I told the guys the most important thing you can do today and in spring is, ‘Play the next play. Just let that one roll off. Whether it’s good or bad, play the next play.'”

There’s work and learning being done with the receivers and tight ends. Should they sit their route down if they read zone defense, or continue with it if they see man coverage?

“We’ve got some things receiver-wise that we’re asking them to read off corners and safeties on route conversions, which I don’t think they’ve done here as much,” Whipple said.

Correct depth on routes is another key area where Whipple wants to see more of in the passing game. Do that, and it opens up more of the field.

“The deeper you can the run the routes the better spacing you’re going to get overall,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to look at, and putting your best guys in those positions.”

Finding “your best guys” is something Whipple has always tried to do at his previous stops. Last season at Pitt, it was receiver Jordan Addison, who won the Biletnikoff Award as the country’s best receiver. At UMass, it was receiver Andy Isabella. Once Whipple identifies that player or players, he wants to be aggressive in getting them the ball.

“It doesn’t matter if you have an 0-10 team, you got a best player, so you try to get the best player the ball,” Whipple said. “Is it the running back? Maybe. Is it the receiver, is it the quarterback? So you feature those guys is what I’ve always tried to do.”

Whipple will have plenty of time to figure out who the Huskers’ best playmaker is. That’s what the spring is for. When he does see it, he’ll be standing in the right spot on the practice field.

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