Last year Nebraska’s offensive coaching staff had two guys at the skill positions they just didn’t have to worry all that much about day in and day out. And, by extension, those guys could mostly police the rest of their teammates. Stanley Morgan Jr. was, above all else, a fiery competitor and he brought that intensity to the practice field on a Tuesday like it was Memorial Stadium on a Saturday. Devine Ozigbo was as tireless a worker as these coaches have had. It’s part of the reason he was able to morph his game they way he did his final season.
If Morgan’s teammates weren’t bringing the effort on a consistent basis, he was comfortable letting them know. Ozigbo wasn’t the vocalist Morgan was, but he was a guy others looked up to.
Who will be those guys this season? JD Spielman is a lead-by-example kind of guy. No one in the running back room has the résumé to stand above his peers. In spring ball, running backs coach Ryan Held saw some things slipping with his group.
“(Be) more consistent and (compete) more every single day,” Held challenged his group then. “If things aren’t going right, it can’t be the coaches fixing it, it has to be the leaders on the football team fixing it. Like today, we came out and it was not great to start, then we kind of duh-da-duh-da-duh then boom, the last half of practice was lights out. In a game, you don’t get to re-do it. You don’t get to hit the restart button like you do in these video games these guys play. You’ve got to come out, first play, and let’s go.”
Consistency was a big deal in the spring.
“We’re heading in the right direction. We just need to be more consistent,” wideout coach Troy Walters said in early April. “The guys are getting reps, a lot of young guys. They’re kind of getting thrown in the fire, going against a defense that — at least to me — is a seasoned defense, guys that are flying around over there and know what they’re doing, so they’re making our job tough. We need to be a little more consistent and have a little more grip. That’s going to come.”
But consistency is always thrown around. What exactly needs to be more consistent? What exactly, aside from effort play in and play out, are Walters and Held and tight ends coach Sean Beckton looking for from their group this offseason?
A few things.
On the first day of spring ball, during the first drill, Walters had his receivers working on blocking. No block, no rock, he says. And Walters isn’t the only one to stress the importance of blocking the perimeter. Head coach Scott Frost talked about perimeter blocking being the main differentiator between good offenses and great offenses on a handful of occasions throughout 2018.
Then-junior wideout Mike Williams lost his early-season starting job because of perimeter blocking. The third wide receiver on the field with Morgan and Spielman was on the field because he was a willing blocker.
“They understand that this offense really goes when we’re able to block the perimeter,” Walters said in the spring. “When we’re able to have a run play or a bubble or something built into it and if we can get the ball on the perimeter to our playmakers and we can block the perimeter, that’s free yards. That’s deflating to a defense when you can just throw a little screen out there and get 10, 12, 15 yards on it. So, guys understand the importance, that big plays come because of receivers blocking downfield.”
Many, since the season ended, have pointed out the rarity of truly downfield passing in Frost’s first year running the Husker offense. Nebraska was more content to throw those bubbles, slants and other quick-hitters to try and get its playmakers into space. Without a proven deep threat on the roster right now but rather a bunch of versatile, elusive receivers, the same approach could be likely again for 2019.
But in order to find more success, Nebraska’s going to need better execution outside the hash marks. This is right up near the top in terms of Nebraska’s offseason checklist on offense.
Here the Huskers had Wyatt Mazour set up outside with three blockers in front of him for three immediate defenders and got 1 yard.
This kind of thing happened way too often last season. Guys needed to block outside-in and went inside out. One guy couldn’t find his man and the play was blown up because of it. Someone is ball-watching and instead of 40 yards you get 7.
This is the kind of thing that costs you playing time.
(To be fair, this isn’t just a wideout thing. The tight ends need to be better blockers on the perimeter as well. Katerian LeGrone could wind up playing a lot more than expected this season because he’s the best blocker in the group not named Jack Stoll.)
Breaking Bigger Runs
Held has this deal he calls “3 Stripe Life” and it’s sort of borrowing from Nebraska’s official apparel supplier but not really. When his running backs are tagged or tackled or down, regardless of where they are on the field, get three more yard lines — or “stripes.” If you’re at the opponent’s 20-yard-line, get to the end zone. Finish the play.
Held wants guys who break away at the second level. Remember that run Greg Bell had early on last season when he broke through the second level but didn’t score? It’s second-and-6 in a tied game in the second quarter, Bell takes a handoff up the middle and rumbles into green grass with no one in front of him. He started at the Nebraska 25 and it looked like he was going to score but he got caught from behind and a touchdown became a 45-yard gainer. Adrian Martinez scored six plays later, but that was a play that stuck with Held after the game.
Those need to be touchdowns, Held said. You can’t be getting caught from behind.
When the blocking is right and the play-call is right, Nebraska’s runners need to score.
Nebraska broke a run for at least 20 yards on 31 plays last season, which was good for third in the Big Ten. But 12 of those came from Ozigbo and another nine from Martinez. Junior college transfer Dedrick Mills brings the power already, he’s just been working on being a little more explosive. Maurice Washington’s offseason as it relates to the football field has just been about staying in playing shape while he deals with off-the-field matters.
It seems simple enough, but another offseason of conditioning with strength coach Zach Duval might be the key here. A guy like Jaylin Bradley — who looked much bigger than normal in 2018 — has slimmed down noticeably. Some of the speedier options like Brody Belt and Miles Jones have gotten a little more burn in the backfield. Incoming freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins have plenty of speed to give some away and still obliterate you or I in a foot race.
Last year, Held had a bruiser not known for high-end speed as his main option. This season, things are reversed. There’s no shortage of quickness in his room.
Tight Ends at the Line of Scrimmage
“Last year we were held up way too much at the line of scrimmage, at the second level and working around because we were unsure,” Beckton told me in the spring. “That’s development and understanding what’s going on a little bit more.”
Nebraska wants to involve the tight end more in the passing game in Year 2 and a guy like Jack Stoll has major upside as a vertical threat. But the tight ends have just as much of a responsibility to make themselves better targets for Martinez as the coaches have of scheming up plays for them.
“(Stoll)’s getting his eyes better on the front end of the coverage where he can understand how he needs to maneuver off linebackers and safeties so he can get down the field a lot quicker,” Beckton said. “He’s really, really improved in that area for us.
“Being able to understand what was going on in front of him, to dissect what type of coverage pre-snap and who he needs to work. His eyes were all over the place last year, and really all those guys were, but he’s really, really come on and been a guy that can get down the field.”
The battle for that No. 2 spot will be interesting in fall camp between LeGrone, Austin Allen and Kurt Rafdal. LeGrone has the leg up in terms of blocking, but a guy like Allen has been around longer and should, theoretically, be a little more comfortable in the system.
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.