If it wasn’t clear before 2015 that Cethan Carter was a pretty good football player, it became undeniable around the Illinois game, in which Carter, despite a loss, manhandled the Illini linebackers in the run game while also adding 63 yards on 3 catches through the air. Because tight ends rarely carry the ball or catch screens as wide receivers can, getting an elite tight end the ball takes more creativity from the offensive coordinator and it also takes more commitment from the QB to get him the ball.
And over the past 6 games or so, we’ve seen a lot of that from coordinator Danny Langsdorf work hard to get #11 the ball, and we’ve also seen better commitment from Huskers QB Tommy Armstrong follow through on it. It’s become even more true in 2016, as the Nebraska offense now runs primarily through Armstrong’s legs and passing concepts designed to get Cethan Carter the ball. That’s not to say that Langsdorf has forgotten the other skill position players. After all, Alonzo Moore, Jordan Westerkamp and Brandon Reilly have 22 combined catches for 6 TDs, and of course Devine Ozigbo, Terrell Newby, Tre Bryant and Mikale Wilbon are eating too.
But by and large, Nebraska has set its 2016 offense up to own the middle of the field by pairing Armstrong and Carter in a combo that puts conflicting pressure on opposing LBs. Once that’s established, then they look to get the Savage Professionals involved on the perimeter. Let’s take a look at some of the concepts Langsdorf is dialing up to get Cethan Carter the ball and own the hashes. And as per usual, most of the hyperlinks have cut ups of Carter in action.
If you don’t know by now, Carter is a dominant blocker in the run game. This dates all the way back to early 2015, and perhaps there was no better example of it than in the Michigan State upset, as he continually put Spartans defenders, including third rounder Shilique Calhoun, on skates:
That has continued in 2016, as Carter, despite not being a hulking tight end, has continually controlled the edge and allowed Nebraska to run outside zone, QB sweep, jet sweep, etc.
But Langsdorf hasn’t been content to waste Carter’s legs in the run game, and so, in a departure from tradition, he’s also used #11 as a ball carrier on reverses. We got a glimpse of that in the UCLA game, along with Carter’s house call against Rutgers, and it continued in 2016 with a Statute of Liberty play:
I don’t know that the TE reverse is going to get regular play in the NFL anytime soon, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see whichever NFL team drafts Carter line him up in the backfield at times. He’s shockingly good with the ball in his hands, with plus acceleration for a guy his size and a willingness to beat people up when they try to tackle him. It’s a small sample size, but 3 career carries for 57 yards and a TD tells you he’s got some talent with the ball in his hands.
I suspect you’ll see Langsdorf continue to use Carter as a ballcarrier, and I think you’re going to see him lined up in our Split Backs Gun set at some point in time this year. Nebraska already has a big back in Ozigbo who can fill that role, but Carter gives you a bit more heft in pass protection and also much greater ability in the receiving game. #11 can also give you some production in the shovel screen package as well as being a hellacious lead blocker on QB sweep or Option. He’s certainly not going to replace Ozigbo back there, but I think you’ll see it a handful of times late in the season as a change of pace.
As good as Carter is in the run game, both carrying it and blocking if someone else does, his major value to this team is what he does to opposing defenses in the passing game. A great tight end who can hold the middle of the field makes it extremely difficult for opposing safeties. Cover 2 safeties are used to expanding out toward the sidelines to help over top on wide receivers, and a tight end who can run the seam puts stress on those guys to hold the middle a beat longer than they otherwise would. That makes them late to get over top the WR going vertical.
And from the Y Detached look we frequently put Carter in, Cover 4 safeties have to be aware of him the PIN concept, often with the risk of leaving CBs one on one with a Savage Professional:
Finally Nebraska has a number of concepts designed to attack Cover 3 as well, working Y Sail and Y Cross to run the CB off on a deep route and let Carter work underneath him. The beneficiaries are Nebraska’s wide receivers, who have to worry far less about safety help coming from the middle of the field than they would if Carter wasn’t on this roster.
With that, let’s look at a few of the common concepts that Langsdorf uses to attack all of the field with Carter.
Nebraska loves this concept on 2nd/3rd and medium, and they’ll run it from all of their personnel groups. Run Carter on a Curl route, sometimes paired with supporting Curls from the WRs or the other TE and sometimes not. In All Curls, with every receiver running a Curl, nobody goes deep and so it’s a low risk concept for Armstrong. And it’s also one that, based on the defense’s pre-snap alignment, should be easy to get Carter a clean look at a reception.
The Huskers will run this a number of different ways, and I suspect Carter has an option route specifically built into the play. In 11 personnel, they’ll detach Carter from the line of scrimmage and run him on a straight Curl. If the defense lines up leveraged outside him at the line of scrimmage, the Huskers will turn it into a Stab route for Carter. Get off, split the interior Hook defenders, and sit down looking for the ball:
They’ll also run it out of 12 personnel, running mirrored Curls from Carter and Cotton/Foster out of Ace formation.
It’s what offenses call an inexpensive concept to run, largely because it’s an easy, short middle-of-the-field throw for the QB, a quick one to take pressure off the OL in pass protection, and it also gets the ball in the hands of one of your best offensive players. And as you see from the clips above, it almost always holds at least one safety in the middle of the field, leaving one of Nebraska’s WRs in single coverage against a CB.
Y Cross, Y Sail, Seam and the TE Wheel
To prevent defenses from sitting on the Curl to Carter, Nebraska will also put him in vertical routes off play action designed to stress Nickelbacks and LBs having to run with him. Two of the more frequent concepts they’ve used are Y Cross and Y Sail. Y Cross is exactly like it sounds, with Carter releasing vertical off the line of scrimmage before working his way across the field:
I‘ve seen Nebraska draw this up a couple of different ways. First, as above, with a deep mesh between Carter and a WR to the opposite side of the formation. This gets a natural pick with the WR, freeing either Carter from a trailing LB or the WR working back into the deep middle. Second, with the opposite side WR running a go route to clear coverage. That’s the more traditional Y Cross look that still remains a staple of Mike Leach’s offense.
And not to be forgotten, we’ve talked about how Coach Riley and Coach Langsdorf also love flood concepts, including Sail. They frequently run it with Jordan Westerkamp from the slot, but they’ll also run Y Sail with Carter working underneath the vertical route by the #1 WR. That’s an extremely difficult cover for DBs, who have to respect the vertical threat from the WR while also seeing #11 working back in front of them as bait. And unless you have great cover DBs or LBs who can match up in man coverage, there’s no answer for it. You don’t want to cut the WR loose, but it’s also tough to ask a LB or S playing with inside leverage on Carter’s Sail route to be able to break on it and keep with him while still protecting the middle of the field against the Seam or Post from him.
Nebraska will also run Carter straight up the seam on 4 Verticals and, though I can’t seem to find the particular clip of it, they’ll sneak Carter out on the Wheel route as the WR to his side sucks into a Skinny Post route. I haven’t seen the Wheel yet this year, but you know it’s coming because it’s essentially unguardable with a player of Carter’s caliber.
RPO Game, Screens and TE Delay Routes
We talked in the Oregon game about the Y Stick/QB Lead Draw RPO and how it destroyed the Ducks. Carter’s presence in that play is huge, as opposing LBs have to respect his presence on the Stick route. And when that happens, you get one LB working out hard to Carter, leaving Ozigbo one on one to block the remaining LB and Armstrong right behind him with the ball in open space against a safety. Again, that’s not a good look for defenses and they’ll have to find an answer fast.
One other way we get Carter the ball in a bit of misdirection is by using his considerable blocking talents before cutting him loose on a delayed pass route:
In a lot of ways, this delay route is no different than a QB scramble (think Ben Roethlisberger) that extends the play. Coverage concepts other than pure man-to-man are designed to hit their zone landmarks or match route concepts within the first two seconds of a play. Once you get beyond that point, the routes have already distributed into the secondary, the DBs and LBs are covering them accordingly and the field starts to get distorted by the routes in action.
By initially holding Carter in as a blocker, Langsdorf is able the let the other routes distribute, pulling coverage away from Carter and opening up the field. After Carter helps with pass protection, he’s then cut loose into open space. In essence, Langsdorf gets a two-for-one from arguably the best player on the field: Carter adds to the pass protection, cancelling out the edge rush, and then catches the ball in the open field. You can’t ask for more than that as both player and coordinator, and Langsdorf will use this more as we move into conference play.
Finally, Nebraska involves Carter in its screen game, though we have yet to see much success on this play:
You hope at some point they get this right because Carter is so dynamic in the open field. Give him enough space and he might just take it to the end zone. If not, he’ll put a nice little lick on a DB for sure:
Wrapping It Up
By no means is the above list exclusive. Langsdorf, along with every Husker fan who has watched more than a game or two the last 24 months, realizes that Cethan Carter is an absolute star for Nebraska’s offense. And so OCDL continues to create ways to get #11 the ball. And most importantly, as we see above, the play book can attack any part of the field with Carter, be it deep or short middle, flats, seams, or backside holes left in vacating coverage. If that fails, bring him behind the line to carry the ball. That means Nebraska has an answer for any defensive coverage that teams want to throw at them, and that answer almost always involves more touches for #11.
And though you don’t want to give Langsdorf too much credit, as it’s pretty easy to know that Carter is a beast, you also have to appreciate that historically a tight end is one of the more difficult guys to get the ball. The position is frequently around multiple defenders in the middle of the field and it’s not one that gets to carry the ball much if ever. With Carter, though, Langsdorf has rejected conventional wisdom and instead adjusted the offense in favor of getting the ball in the hands of Nebraska’s best play maker.
Not only does that mean more money for Carter in next year’s NFL Draft, but it also has a positive multiplier effect on Nebraska’s offense, as #11’s production creates space for everyone around him to work. It opens up Tommy Armstrong on QB Draw RPOs, and it also gives the Savage Professionals one-on-one match ups outside with no safety help over the top.
Stay tuned because I think Carter may finish this year with one of the all time great annual performances. He probably won’t get credit for it because modern stats are distorted by pace and space spreads, something the Huskers don’t run, and also because nobody seems to pay attention to run blocking anymore. That said, I’ve already moved him above Johnny Mitchell on my list of all-time Husker TEs. As good as Mitchell was in the passing game, no way in hell he blocked like Mr. Carter. Now it’s simply a matter of how high Carter can climb on my all-time greatest college TE list. If we continue to target him as we’ve done in the first three games, the sky’s the limit for #11.