In today’s college football world, speed and tempo reign supreme. You can credit UCLA’s Chip Kelly for that. He’s at the heart of the up-tempo offensive movement.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost spent seven seasons at Oregon, the first four with then-Ducks head coach Kelly from 2009-2012. It was there that Frost learned Kelly’s up-tempo offense, which focuses on spreading the field, misdirection and neck-breaking speed. Oregon was also the master at changing tempo under Kelly’s direction, which wreaked havoc on opposing defenses.
Those years were formative for Frost. As Central Florida’s head coach in 2016 and 2017, he implemented a lot of the speed and tempo he learned from Kelly. It wasn’t a mirror copy, though.
Frost’s UCF offense mixed new-school speed and tempo with old-school power football. There were zone reads, pin-and-pull sweeps, and plenty of power. He dialed it up by adding more pre-snap shifts and motions, as well as run-pass options. For as inspired as Frost’s offense was by Kelly, it was just as inspired by his time playing for legendary Nebraska coach Tom Osborne.
When Frost was hired to lead the Huskers in December 2017, the speculation began about the type of offense he would run. Would Nebraska lean more toward the speed and tempo of Kelly? Or would the power football of Osborne win out?
Let’s just say it’s a little of both.
Osborne won a national title in 1997, his last season as Nebraska’s head coach. It was a team led by Frost – a senior at the time – and anchored by players like freshman wide receiver Matt Davison. The Huskers won with a true option attack, something that isn’t as prominent in college football today – save for teams like Georgia Tech and Navy.
(Video of Frost running the option to help UCF prepare for Navy went viral last fall.)
That doesn’t mean the option isn’t still there in college football. For many programs, it just looks a little different than it did before. At least that’s how Davison, now the associate athletic director for Nebraska football, sees it.
“If you’re talking the fullback, running back and quarterback in the option attack, now it might be the running back, quarterback and a bubble screen,” Davison told Hail Varsity. “A lot of people are doing that. There’s still options for the quarterback on each play. Each team has their own form of an option of attack, whether that’s two or three options on a play. It just looks different.”
Nebraska running backs coach Ryan Held agrees. He was also on that 1997 national championship team with Frost and Davison, so he knows what the option looked like under Osborne. He also understands the importance of speed, having coached with Frost at UCF and now at Nebraska.
And having spent time playing in an option attack and coaching a high-speed spread – much like Frost – Held feels confident in the evolution of the option.
“The option stuff in today’s world is where you’re running zone, throwing it on the bubble, it’s just the triple option is all it is,” Held said. “You trade a little tempo for it, but I absolutely think you could do a lot of the same stuff we did back then again today.”
As up-tempo offenses evolved, defenses were forced to adapt. The faster an offense goes, the less time a defense has to adjust. Do enough of that in a game and the defense is bound to tire out.
That’s a major perk of the offense Frost runs.
“You’re wearing the defense out,” Held said. “You’re trying to get them to play the length of the field, so you might throw the ball over there and then they have to run over here and then you throw it over there. You’re doing it so much faster, instead of them being able to huddle up, line up and get their heels in the ground. They don’t have time to catch their breath, and if you can really get that and change formations and even if it’s not the greatest look but you’re firing off and they dismiss one gap, that’s when you get these huge plays.”
The catch? Up-tempo offenses are no longer new in college football. Teams have adapted and adjusted, training their defenses to handle the speed and keep up with the tempo.
That’s where Frost’s power football comes into play. Offenses now balance speed with strategy, changing up the pace of the offense and the approach to a play to make things a little more difficult. Going fast is still the goal, but switching up the tempo is just as important.
"You don’t want to go fast all the time because if you go three-and-out in eight seconds, your defense is back on the field,” Held said. “There’s that fine line of trading this for that. The more depth you get on defense, maybe you can go a little faster on offense at times, but at the end of the day, we can make it look like a tempo, look over and get in the right play too.
“There’s a lot of moving pieces to this.”
Frost’s offense today looks different than the one he ran for Nebraska in 1997. There are elements still there, though. And when fans see those elements, they may wonder about the option attack and if it could work again in 2018.
“I think we could run that offense with hand signals,” Davison said. “It wouldn’t probably be as fast as what we’re wanting now, but I think we could implement tempo into the option attack.”
Held agrees. He’s wondered what it would have looked like to put tempo into Nebraska’s option attack 21 years ago. Back then, a little tempo would have gone a long way. It would have allowed Nebraska to call a play even faster and get lined up before the defense could really dig its heels into the ground.
“I think it would have been scary back then if we had done a little bit of what we do today,” Held said. “It would really be scary."
When Davison and Held reflect on 1997 and the option attack, both are confident Nebraska could successfully replicate that offense again today. There might need to be adjustments, but neither was opposed to the overall idea.
It’s probably because the option still exists within the pages of Nebraska’s playbook. It might look a little different than it did when they played for the Huskers, but it’s there. And Frost has put it there as an answer for his team.
“In ‘97, when I was here running the option on those teams, there was always an answer no matter what the defense gave us. No matter what look they gave us,” Davison said. “I think that’s true of any good offense. You better have an answer no matter how they line up, no matter what coverage they’re in or might be.
“I think that’s what Scott has done well with the offense so far is having an answer for what they throw at you.”
Having played for Osborne and coached for Kelly, Frost picked up a few of those answers along the way. Speed and tempo may reign, but power football still has its place.
Sometimes a little of both goes a long way.
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.