What’s the offense going to look like?
With the addition of Mark Whipple as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Nebraska, that’s the very question the fan base is asking itself. It’s hard to say what exactly the new-look Husker offense will be until that unit trots onto the field and runs its first play against Northwestern on Aug. 27 in Dublin, Ireland.
There’s still much to get figured out between now and then. What’s the quarterback situation going to look like at Nebraska? Will Logan Smothers or Heinrich Haarberg be the guy, or will the Huskers land a signal caller from the transfer portal or junior-college ranks who can provide much-needed experience to the room and competition at practice? Also, the offensive line. How will that unit under first-year position coach Donovan Raiola progress after what can be considered a poor 2021 season?
During this past season, head coach Scott Frost hinted that the offense likely won’t look drastically different in 2022. At least, that wouldn’t be the plan to start. Frost wanted to be on the same page as the new OC hire, which turned out to be Whipple.
“If I’m going to turn it over to somebody, I just need somebody that’s done it and that I can trust to put our heads together and put the best of what they do with the best of what we do and let him run with it,” he said. “I’m kind of looking for some fresh ideas to help. Not necessarily wholesale changes, but if we think that gives us the best chance to get a little better, we will.”
With Frost expected to transition away from the play-calling duties to more of an overseeing CEO-type head coach like his Athletic Director, Trev Alberts, suggested he should be, Whipple becomes the most intriguing of the new hires.
Whipple spent the past three seasons as the OC and quarterbacks coach at Pittsburgh, where he just won an Atlantic Coast Conference championship over Wake Forest. It won’t tell the whole story, but Pitt’s game with the Demon Deacons could give Husker fans a hint at what they could see in 2022.
It’s important to remember a few things. First, Whipple had the benefit of Kenny Pickett being his quarterback. Pickett is a Heisman Trophy candidate who enjoyed a breakout 2021 season with 4,319 passing yards and 42 touchdown passes. Whipple isn’t bringing Pickett with him to Lincoln—the 64-year-old OC will have to work with a much-less experienced quarterback room in Lincoln, one that, at least right now, doesn’t appear to have a passer to Pickett’s level.
Pitt’s players also had the benefit of playing three seasons in the same offensive system, with the same OC and quarterback. That’s continuity, which Nebraska’s offensive players won’t have. Some of the elements Pitt used against Wake Forest shouldn’t be expected in Whipple’s first season, or at least not right away.
With that being said, let’s take a look at the film of the Pitt-Wake Forest game, which the Panthers won 45-21. What jumped out, or was interesting?
Whipple liked to pass
Of the 12 non-garbage time drives that Pitt had, the Panthers ran 63 plays. Forty-one of those plays were passes, so Whipple threw the ball 65% of the time when the game was still in Wake Forest’s reach. Pitt ran 41 plays in the first half with 28 of them being passing attempts, or 68%.
Whipple didn’t just sling it around the yard in that one game against Wake Forest. He’s done that in all three seasons at Pitt. In 2019, his first season as OC, the Panthers averaged 39.5 passes per game, which ranked first in the ACC and tied for seventh-most in the nation. In 2020, they averaged 38.6 passes per game, second in the conference and 14th most in the nation. In 2021, Whipple threw the ball 40.1 times a game, second-most in the ACC and ninth-most in the nation.
It was only until the 2021 season where Pitt really had a breakout season. Pitt averaged 350.2 passing yards per game, and its 8.7 yards-per-attempt mark ranked 16th in the country. The previous years weren’t as good as this season’s was—2019’s passing yards per game was 261.7 (6.6 yards per attempt) while 2020’s was 259.7 (6.7).
What were Pitt’s rushing numbers under Whipple? They weren’t all that good. In 2019, the Panthers rushed for 118.7 yards per game and 3.5 per carry, which ranked 118th in the country. The yards-per-carry average got worse in 2020 at 3.39, or 108th. This past season was Whipple’s best rushing offense of his tenure with the Panthers—152 rushing yards per game with a 4.03 yards-per-carry.
In the win over Wake Forest, Whipple showed similar concepts that Frost has shown at Nebraska. In the example below, Whipple called a swing pass that went for a touchdown thanks to miscommunication on the Demon Deacons’ part:
In the example above, Pitt’s two receivers to the field, or long side, both run slants in an effort to muck up and dirty the ally that the Wake Forest linebacker, Ryan Smenda, Jr. (#5), needs to take. Smenda looks like he wants to pass off the running back, but that didn’t happen as his two teammates stay on the slant routes and don’t come off.
Whipple also showed another element that Frost did in 2021—putting a playmaker in the backfield. Like Frost did with Samori Touré, Whipple also inserted a playmaker next to Pickett. In Pitt’s case, that’s receiver and Biletnikoff Award winner, Jordan Addison:
The example above is a common passing concept that offenses all over the country use. Whipple wants to get his talented wideout Addison the ball, and sends him on a wheel route from the backfield. To help clear his path, the receiver lined up in the boundary, or short side of the field, Jaden Bradley (#81), runs his slant with the purpose of intentionally getting in the way of the linebacker who ends up trailing Addison, in this case Smenda again.
It should be noted again that Whipple had the talented quarterback to call all these passes. Would the offense at Pitt have operated how it did without Pickett? Whipple and Frost will put their heads together to create plays and concepts that best fit the quarterback they have, not the one that don’t.
Whipple used an unbalanced line
When you’re in your third season with a veteran quarterback, you can allow yourself to get creative in the conference championship game, and that’s exactly what Whipple did with his unbalanced lines.
What is an unbalanced line? It’s when an offense aligns more players on one side of the ball than the other, while still having seven line up on the line of scrimmage, which is a rule. Here’s an example of an unbalanced line that Whipple used against Wake Forest:
Check out the center in the screenshot above. He has three offensive linemen to his left, and only one to his right. Whipple replaced the tight end, Lucas Krull (#7), with the right tackle, Carter Warren (#77). Doing that creates a bigger and stronger left side of the line that would include center Owen Drexel (6-foot-3, 310 pounds), left guard Marcus Minor (6-4, 325 pounds), left tackle Matt Goncalves (6-6, 320 pounds) and Warren (6-5, 315 pounds).
Unbalanced lines can be used to create a bigger blocking surface, or to simply make the defense think and react to the alignment. Because who knows, maybe a defense isn’t properly prepared for an unbalanced look and doesn’t align correctly, which could give the advantage to the offense. On Pitt’s fifth drive, one that lasted eight plays, Whipple used an unbalanced line five times.
Of the 63 non-garbage time plays, 14 used unbalanced sets. Nine of those 14 unbalanced sets—or 64%—were run plays, with five being passes. Here’s an example of Whipple running the ball from an unbalanced set:
In the play above, the right side of line—this time, that means two tackles in Warren (#77) and Goncalves (#76)—blocks down and double-teams Wake Forest’s 4-technique, or defender who is head-up on the tackle. While the double team is moving that 4-tech, the two guards, Gabe Houy (#57) and Minor (#55), pull around to lead block for the running back. To occupy the field defenders, or Wake Forest’s players covering the receivers on the long side of the field, Whipple added a bubble-screen action.
Here’s Whipple calling the same play, but this time motioning the receiver to the boundary, or short side of the field, who then runs the dummy screen action:
Will Nebraska fans see as much unbalanced as Whipple showed in his conference title game? It’s doubtful, especially early in the season. That’s something that an older, more experienced offense can pull off.
Nebraska’s tight end room should be excited
Whipple used his tight ends in the game against Wake Forest, primarily his top two in Krull (6-6, 260 pounds) and Gavin Bartholomew (6-4, 260). Krull, a redshirt senior, finished the regular season third on the team in catches with 37 for 443 yards and six touchdowns. Bartholomew, a true freshman, hauled in 27 catches for 317 yards and four scores.
Of the 63 non-garbage-time plays, Pitt’s offense was in 11 personnel (one back, one tight end) 35 times, or 55%. It used 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends) 25 times, or 39%, with Krull and Bartholomew both on the field. Bartholomew served as more of an H-back, with the ability to line up either on the line of scrimmage next to an offensive tackle, or 3-4 yards behind the line in the backfield.
Here’s an example of how Bartholomew was used. He’s lined up in the backfield to the quarterback Pickett’s left:
The addition of Whipple should excite a Nebraska tight end room that is losing Big Ten Tight End of the Year, Austin Allen. Travis Vokolek seems to be the one who could step into Allen’s role, with the young and talented Thomas Fidone II right there with him.
When there was a mismatch, Whipple attacked it
Another aspect that stood out in Pitt’s game against Wake Forest was Whipple’s willingness to attack a perceived weakness on the defense. In these examples, that weakness was second-year Demon Deacon corner Gavin Holmes (#24).
In the examples below, Holmes was picked on for three consecutive plays by Pickett. He won his first two reps, but not the third—let’s start with the first example.
Pickett sees he has one-on-one coverage with his receiver Jared Wayne and Holmes. It’s a good matchup for Wayne, who is a big-body wideout at 6-3, 210 pounds while Holmes is just 5-11, 173. Wayne gives himself more room by stutter-stepping to the inside before he runs a fade route, and Pickett tries a back-shoulder throw but the Panthers can’t connect. Holmes won this rep:
On the very next play, Pitt motions Addison across the formation to help Pickett determine if Wake Forest is playing zone or man coverage. Holmes follows Addison, which likely gave Pickett the green light to throw the slant from Addison, who was going to have man-to-man coverage. Pickett, however, throws the pass way too hard and didn’t give Addison a good ball to catch:
But Pickett and Whipple kept at the gameplan and went Holmes’ way again, and it paid off.
In the example below, Wayne is manned up on Holmes again. It appears that Holmes thinks he has inside help, which he does in safety AJ Williams (#22). But after the snap, Pickett draws Williams to the field side by looking to his right, which gives Wayne more room to run his slant and haul in the 4-yard touchdown pass. Pickett’s experience and eyes made this play happen: