Thirty days following the firings of four assistant coaches on the offensive side of the ball, which included Matt Lubick, whose title was offensive coordinator and receivers coach, Nebraska has hired its new play caller.
On Wednesday morning, Nebraska announced the 64-year-old Mark Whipple was hired as head coach Scott Frost’s next offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Whipple comes to Lincoln after spending the last three seasons with the Pittsburgh Panthers of the Atlantic Coast Conference, where he just won an ACC championship and coached Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback and potential first-round NFL draft pick Kenny Pickett.
— Nebraska Football (@HuskerFBNation) December 8, 2021
Whipple was on the recruiting trail for Pitt on Monday and visited Chubba Purdy, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound quarterback who recently entered his name into the transfer portal after spending two seasons at Florida State. Purdy, a former four-star prospect according to 247Sports, is the younger brother of star Iowa State quarterback, Brock Purdy.
— Chubba Purdy (@chubbapurdy) December 7, 2021
“During his three seasons at Pitt, Mark Whipple was a great asset for our entire football program,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said in a statement. “He did a tremendous job transitioning us from a heavy run attack to one of the best passing games in the entire country. His great work with quarterbacks was obviously on full display given the outstanding year Kenny Pickett has enjoyed. I am very grateful for Mark’s time in Pittsburgh, both personally as well as professionally and I wish him and his family the very best moving forward.”
“The opportunity to coach at a school with the history and tradition of Nebraska is special,” Whipple said in a statement. “Coach Frost has a great offensive mind, and I look forward to working together with him and our staff to best position our players for success. I can’t wait to get to Lincoln and represent Husker Football.”
With Whipple in the fold, what’s it mean for Nebraska’s offense? Fans won’t truly know until the Huskers take their first offensive snap against Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 27. But what one can do is look at what Whipple’s offenses at Pitt have done.
Behind Whipple’s play calling and Pickett’s development as a quarterback, Pitt’s offense became the best in the ACC at scoring, as it averaged 43 points per game in 2021. Whipple’s offense has steadily improved each year he’s been at Pitt. In 2019, his first season, the Panthers averaged just 21.3 points—second to last in the ACC. But the following year, in 2020, Whipple had the Panthers averaging 29 points. The 2021 campaign was a breakout season for both Pickett and his offensive coordinator.
While Nebraska’s 2021 offense under Frost didn’t have trouble gaining yards—the Huskers rank third in the Big Ten with 446.6 total yards per game—it did have problems turning those yards into points, especially when it got inside the 20-yard line. The Huskers scored just 77.36% of the time in the red zone in 2021, which ranks 107th in the nation.
Whipple’s three Pitt offenses showed steady improvement in advanced statistical categories, such as yards per point and points per play. In yards per point, the Panthers went from 112th (17.5) in 2019 to 60th (14.1) in 2020 to 11th (12.1) in 2021. Compare those marks to where Nebraska finished during those seasons—74th (14.9) in 2019 to 114th (16.9) in 2020 to 111th (16.7) in 2021. In points per play, Whipple’s offenses went from 112th (0.285) in 2019 to 90th (0.340) in 2020 to 16th (0.504) in 2021. Nebraska finished 69th (0.377) in 2019, 100th (0.320) in 2020 and 71st (0.371) in 2021.
Will that improvement translate to the Big Ten where tougher defenses reside? The Big Ten finished the regular season with seven teams in the top 25 of scoring defense, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, Minnesota, Iowa, Purdue and Ohio State. The ACC had two in Clemson and NC State.
All three of Whipple’s offenses at Pitt have been better at the pass than the run. In 2019, Pitt averaged 380.5 passing yards per game (and 6.6 yards per attempt) and 118.7 rushing (3.5 per carry). Those averages hovered around the same marks in 2020, with 259.7 passing yards per game (and 6.7 per attempt) and 119.9 rushing (3.3 per carry).
Those pedestrian numbers changed this season, however. In 2021, Whipple’s attack generated an average of 350.2 passing yards per game (and 8.7 per attempt, which is 16th in the nation) and 152.6 rushing (4 yards per carry).
Of course, Whipple will not be bringing his Heisman candidate quarterback with him to Lincoln. His focus now turns to Nebraska’s quarterback room and the options in it. The question of how drastic the change will be on offense in 2022—will it still resemble Frost’s attack, but with elements of Whipple’s, or will it look like Whipple’s with elements of Frost’s?—depends on what Whipple and Frost think the current quarterbacks on the roster can handle.
If a game was played today, Logan Smothers would get the start. What Whipple and Frost have to determine is how well Smothers would be able to operate the plays they want him to run. The dual-threat Smothers excelled at the read-option plays called in his lone start of the season against Iowa.
Pickett is a big 6-foot-3, 220-pound quarterback who has a cannon for an arm and is athletic enough to escape a collapsing pocket and pick up yards with his legs. There’s no question Smothers has the athletic ability and is the better runner of the two, but does the Alabama native possess the arm strength that allowed Pickett to throw for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns? Like a lot of things, that remains to be seen.
Physically, the 6-5, 200-pound Heinrich Haarberg looks similar to Pickett, has a strong arm and is athletic enough to break the pocket and run. What he doesn’t have, however, is valuable playing experience. How does the Kearney Catholic product fit into the Whipple equation?
Richard Torres, Nebraska’s quarterback recruit in its 2022 class, will be rehabbing a knee injury when he gets to Lincoln. Torres is an intriguing prospect at 6-6 and 210 pounds. Like Haarberg, Torres has a strong arm and the ability to get what he can on the ground.
One area that Nebraska’s staff can turn to is the transfer portal, where there could be potential quick fixes. Hail Varsity’s Greg Smith reported that newly hired receivers coach, passing game coordinator and associate head coach, Mickey Joseph, visited a high-profile quarterback who entered his name in the transfer portal. Another quarterback looking for a fresh start also visited Lincoln recently.
Whoever ends up as the Huskers’ quarterback next season will be doing so in an interesting situation. Following NU’s administration restructuring Frost’s contract and the staff shakeup in early November, it’s clear that the Huskers will be playing under a win-now-and-win-early cloud.