Photo Credit: Eric Francis

What Happens if Defenses Scheme to Bracket Trey Palmer?

October 27, 2022

Trey Palmer is no longer a secret weapon. The junior transfer receiver is among the nation’s leaders in receiving yards, tallying 781 yards and five touchdowns for the Huskers. His explosiveness wowed Indiana a month ago and he’s overwhelmed opponents ever since.

Now defenses have to account for him. And, considering four of Nebraska’s remaining five opponents are among the nation’s best defenses, they’ll develop game plans to bracket and cover Palmer to keep him from busting another big play.

“If they try to take Trey away, there’s nothing we can do about it,” head coach Mickey Joseph said on Tuesday. “But the other guys know that they have to play football if that happens.”

Joseph called Palmer the fastest receiver he’s ever coached. Palmer was just as talented at LSU but competed for reps with Justin Jefferson and Terrace Marshall. He went from high school superstar to competing with future first-round picks. That required adjustment and maturity. He’s now emerged as the breakout he always could be, drawing defensive attention along the way. The Huskers are prepared when the time comes.

“We’re going to have options if they take Trey (Palmer) away,” Joseph said. “If they try to take Trey away, there’s nothing we can do about it. But the other guys know that they have to play football if that happens.”

Marcus Washington is trending upward, making big plays on the road against Rutgers and Purdue. He broke 120 yards against Georgia Southern but has been held to 30 or less in all but one game since. Oliver Martin tallied a 100-yard receiving game during his hot streak and tight end Travis Vokolek is back to full health. These are all other options and if opposing defenses maintain a focus on No. 3, that opens opportunity for the others.

“Defenses are going to bracket him,” Washington said of Palmer. “It’s not a big deal for us. We have to make the play when it comes to us. It’s just that simple.”

Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple admitted he sometimes lose patience as quarterback Casey Thompson and the receiving group continues to work on timing. His system, in general, takes time. What the Pittsburgh offense did last year with Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison took three years before the Panthers won the ACC Championship.

Whipple has experience with this situation. Teams started focusing on Addison last year at Pittsburgh. Addison tallied over 100 receiving yards in three of the first five games and at least 80 in all of the Panthers’ final eight games. In that stretch he averaged 14 yards per catch except for when Syracuse’s defense forced him to go under and tackled him quick. Addison still managed two touchdowns and 81 yards but needed 11 catches to do so.

Nebraska will likely move Palmer around in a similar way Addison moved around in Whipple’s offense. The offensive coordinator dropped hints on Wednesday that they’ve pushed Palmer onto the outside and into the slot. He also said he tries not to think too much about it before reducing the plays down to their bare essentials.

“Try to get guys open and try to make throws,” Whipple said.

Pittsburgh’s receivers room last year was similar, if not less explosive, than this year’s Nebraska group. Behind Addison was Jared Wayne, who finished with 658 receiving yards. No other Panther eclipsed 500. The Panthers utilized dual tight ends — Gavin Bartholomew and Lucas Krull, mostly — to bolster run blocking and provide another receiving option. Defenses never shut down Addison but merely limited damage, at best. Even during the Peach Bowl, Addison put up 114 yards with a 52-yard catch. But he didn’t score and Pittsburgh didn’t win.

The tricky part for defenses is not only trying to stop Palmer, it’s limiting him without allowing someone else to make up for his loss. In key drives last year against Syracuse and North Carolina, Bartholomew found enough space for important touchdown catches. Krull scored the winning touchdown in overtime against North Carolina because the Tar Heels bracketed Addison. Wake Forest successfully kept Addison out of the end zone in last year’s ACC Championship game but at the cost of allowing a 58-yard touchdown run from Pickett, 22-yard touchdown pass to third-string running back Rodney Hammond Jr. and a quick second-half touchdown throw to Wayne.

Granted, the Pittsburgh defense forced four turnovers in that ACC Championship but the basics remain the same. A big-play receiver gets yards in Whipple’s system. Palmer is the fastest receiver Joseph has ever worked with. If a defense can keep up with him, space follows. So how do the Huskers take advantage?

“You’ve got to find the guy that’s in single coverage,” Whipple said.

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