Photo by John S. Peterson
Nebraska Football

Nebraska Was Awfully Busy this Offseason

March 29, 2020
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I saw Scott Frost out on a jog the other day. Nothing creepy, I recognized the hat. “Time on his hands,” I thought, as my vehicle took me one direction and his feet carried him in another. Nebraska’s football coaching staff typically exists on an irregular schedule compared to the rest of the working public. But now that their schedules are mostly the same as anyone else—home for breakfast, home for lunch, home for dinner—what, I’ve been wondering, have they spent their time on in the midst of all this “down” time? More family time? Or more football analysis?

You can only shut your brain off for so long.

For the purposes of the next thousand or so words, the 2020 college football season is happening. (What it will look like isn’t relevant, just that it will happen in one form or another; which, for the record, I’m still convinced will be true. There’s too much money involved for a canceled football season to ever happen.) So, what will Nebraska look like?

That’s obviously not the most pressing question facing us right now, but it’s one my brain has slipped into trying to answer often over the last few weeks. The 2020 season will be volatile, more so than maybe ever before, and hard to predict, maybe more so than ever before.

Before the sporting world stopped, the most important question facing Nebraska football was how much had it actually grown? In its physicality, in its maturity, in its grasp of the offensive system? Now the players can’t work out with one another or strength coach Zach Duval. They can’t sit in a meeting room and pour over mistakes from a year ago with their position coach. They can’t work hands-on with offensive coordinator Matt Lubick.

Nebraska can just watch.

Watch itself, watch others, watch the 2013 Texas high school state title game that was randomly on one of the Fox Sports regional networks a week ago. Players will work out in their living rooms and driveways but growth now for them will come from mental reps.

Scott Frost, and the rest of this Nebraska coaching staff, offense in particular, already did their own version of that this offseason in a way they haven’t really done before.

Lubick watched every single offensive snap of the 2019 iteration of Nebraska football. Frost was patient with that process. Both men had a goal: through self-scout, through analysis of others, through collaborative efforts, find out how to fix what went wrong last year.

Nebraska’s offense, from a numbers standpoint, idled. Play-to-play efficiency went down. Scoring efficiency went down. As the 2019 moved through and things kept seeming to break rather than coalesce, a question cropped up: was Nebraska taking a look in the mirror or reassuring itself things would change if it just stayed the course.

“Part of being a good coach, is you’re always evolving,” Lubick said.

Frost took a long look in the mirror, it seems. And he and his staff came back to the table armed with a plan.

“We did a better job self-scouting this year than we have before,” Frost said. “There’s a few new concepts, more than anything it’s just us dialing in the technique and detail of things.”

In several ways, coaching in the Big Ten hasn’t been what this Nebraska staff expected and they’ve been forced to adjust. At each juncture, they’ve been more than willing, but up until this offseason the adjustments were micro—recruit bigger defensive backs. This required a bigger scale.

“It’s been a bit hectic,” quarterback coach Mario Verduzco said about the offseason.

Frost tasked his coaches with not just self-scouting projects, but to go out and look at other teams, find replicable ideas that fit within the context of what they already do, and brainstorm ways to fold those ideas in. Nebraska looked at Oregon’s screen game and LSU’s passing tree. It looked at the Kansas City Chiefs.

“Anytime something doesn’t work the way you want it to, it’s never just one thing, it’s always an accumulation of things,” Lubick said. “The more you really look at it, the more you evaluate, you start talking about how you can fix it.

“There’s a lot of good offenses out there, there are a lot of good ideas, but it’s still got to fit in the framework of what you do.”

And more so this spring than any other time since this staff came together, Nebraska didn’t just look at how to reinforce what it already had, it looked at the “Why?” of what it was trying to accomplish big picture.

“We saw some things in our film that we didn’t do so well from a technique standpoint,” said offensive line coach and run game coordinator Greg Austin. “We were putting our kids in a position to succeed in some cases, other cases I didn’t think it was coached as good as it should have been coached.

“It’s not like finishing hasn’t been a message around here, but it’s one thing to speak about it, and it’s another to talk about it. Like, let’s really talk about it. Why didn’t you finish that block? Was it an effort deal or was it a technique deal? You can turn on the film right now and say such and such is not a good player, or whatever, but is he not a good player or is he just not being coached to do what he should do to finish that block?

“We did do a deeper self-scout, and part of (that) was don’t turn on the film and just say, ‘This guy missed a block,’ let’s talk about why he missed that block. Was it the kid’s fault? Was it the coach’s fault? Was it a combination of both? Are we in the right stuff? … Every play was broken down with the ‘why,’ why did it work, why didn’t it work, what are we trying to get accomplished?”

A coach rewatches film every offseason. That’s not something to make a big deal over. Verduzco will meet with his quarterback and go through as much as he can without overloading the kid. Very rarely, though, will a staff this highly regarded question it’s identity.

For example: Nebraska was doin’ too much with its run game. Austin’s words. (Or, to be more clear, his sentiment. He didn’t actually use the phrase, “Doin’ too much,” though that would have been spectacular.) Forcing interior running early when it wasn’t working, going away from interior running later once it actually started working, mixing in old-school Husker ideologies to some pretty good success and then never returning to them, things like that. The argument then was that Nebraska was just searching for something it could run consistently.

But then it just focused on hammering home the inside zone concept and completely ran Wisconsin over.

So.

“We’re going to be really good at a few things and not (try) to be average at everything under the sun,” Austin said.

Time in the hands of smart people is a dangerous thing. Comparatively speaking, what will Nebraska’s “really good” look like? Frost has nothing but time now to tinker some more, should he so choose, but does he need to? That jog might be a peaceful one.

That would be a pretty good sign.

 
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