Tempo Still a Work in Progress
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Tempo Still a Work in Progress, But Nebraska’s Sure Making Progress

August 15, 2018

On Sunday, Nebraska scrimmaged. The defense gave pretty watered-down looks, just trying to figure out who has the fundamentals down. The offense did the same. The Huskers worked on red zone scenarios and worked on clutch drills (their name for a two-minute offense). One of the details the Huskers are trying to sharpen is tempo. The thing that makes this all work.

“You’ve got to keep it going. Staying in shape is the most important thing in this offense,” wideout Stanley Morgan Jr. said. “We rep it so much but when you get the chance to go live and really get that tempo going and have the referee there it really gets you that game feel.”

Nebraska’s offense last season was 110th in adjusted pace, a metric that accounts for both the number of plays a team attempts and the type of play given that passes usually take up less clock time than runs. Central Florida was 22nd. That's a wide gap the new staff is trying to bridge.

They're doing so by ensuring nothing is done slowly.

“We’ve always thought if you’re trying to have them play fast on the field, then sitting in a meeting room and having it be slow-paced doesn’t make sense,” head coach Scott Frost said. “As many reps as we can give them in the classroom and on the field, the better opportunity they’ll have to improve."

Tight end coach Sean Beckton says he demands fast answers in his meeting room. Quarterback coach Mario Verduzco has lightning quick meetings with his group and calls for “quick blinkers” on the field. Running back coach Ryan Held makes sure his backs are getting the ball back to referees as quickly as possible after plays.

“They’ve got to get it and run the ball to the official because then that guy’s going to set it down,” Held said. “We have to learn the mechanics of tempo so we can get lined up faster.”

There isn’t a single detail overlooked and that’s what the staff is working to get the players to embrace. That was part of the focus in the scrimmage: the details. So far, through nearly two weeks of fall camp, the returns have been positive.

“I think all the guys are doing a much better job of that, just from their understanding of what we need to do when we want to go as fast as possible,” Verduzco said. “The offensive line, the wide receivers and the tight ends, they’re getting lined up much more quickly, which helps us so I think the whole process is a lot faster.”

One of the guys Frost has publicly said he’d like to see improve in that regard is freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez. Both Frost and Verduzco acknowledged that speed goes hand in hand with comfort, and it takes time to get comfortable in the offense, but they’re still pushing the young quarterback to move quicker.

“Adrian is great at times and other times it looks like it’s moving a little too fast for him,” Frost said. “He’s got to pick up his pace physically and mentally. At times it’s tremendous and other times, when he’s not quite sure, he’s a little tentative.”

On Wednesday, there was a noticeable difference in the way the coaches called out plays for Martinez’s unit compared to Tristan Gebbia and Andrew Bunch’s groups when the offense was going through plays against a dummy defense. There was clapping and yelling and a heightened sense of intensity when Martinez was behind center. 

They already run plays at a break-neck pace, so imagine that dialed up another notch.

Verduzco says he’s been pleased with Martinez’s tempo to this point in camp. He said the same of Gebbia and Bunch. Though he confirmed the race for the starting job is now down to two men, Verduzco said all three are “getting used to [the tempo].” You need everyone to be on the same page for things to function smoothly, but the quarterback is the trigger man. Their coach seems happy with how quickly that trigger is getting pulled.

As Held sees it, it's starting to click in guys’ minds why the pace is so important.

“I liked where we were at tempo-wise [on Sunday],” he said. “The last couple practices our tempos are 100 times better, so I think with the guys it’s starting to click a little bit that this can be a real weapon for us.

“Now, we’ve got to be smart sometimes depending on the situation, we can’t go fast all the time due to whatever the situation of the game is, but I think the mechanics of the tempo I liked, especially with my guys. It was a lot better on Sunday.”

Central Florida was one of the most penalized teams a season ago; a lot of it was procedural, pre-snap flubs. That was in a Year 2. There's always going to be an increased risk of penalty when team’s go up-tempo; all five of 2017’s most-penalized teams were in the top-30 for adjusted pace. It’s likely the adjustment period for the Huskers will continue into the season.

Still, there’s optimism around how far they've come.

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