Exactly six days left before kickoff, so I suppose it’s time to fire the Husker hype engine back up. We’re going to tweak things a bit this year to save me some time, hopefully resulting in more content. First, the Charting posts will no longer be an every game thing. Instead, though I’ll still keep the chart for every game, I’ll throw a post up every third game so we can get an idea of Nebraska’s offensive trends. Second, I hope to get a Concepts post up every week where we’ll take an individual look at Nebraska’s favorite offensive concepts and how they work with current personnel. Finally, I’m always open for guest posts. We ran a couple last year, but I’d really like to focus on them more this year. If you have something to offer, let me know and we’ll work it out.
With that out of the way, let’s focus on a couple things I’ll be looking for early in the season from the Husker offense. I know, I know, handsome Bob Diaco is the real offseason story. We’ll get to him soon enough, but I think people are selling the offense short this offseason when they shouldn’t be.
Offensive Line Movement
It was no secret last year that injuries and personnel limited what offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf felt he could do with his offensive line. A fall camp injury to Jerald Foster along with in-season lower leg injuries to Nick Gates and Tanner Farmer largely took the steam out of Nebraska’s starting offensive line. Walk ons Sam Hahn and Dylan Utter filled in admirably and Cole Conrad was a ray of hope by the middle of the season, but they aren’t the most nimble guys when it comes to pulling and getting out on perimeter runs.
By my count, Nebraska pulled its offensive linemen fewer than 20 times last season in the run game. Yes, you read that correct. In 523 rushes in 2016, Nebraska pulled a lineman fewer than 5% of the time. Why is that bad? Numerous reasons.
First, pulling gives you a way to protect your base zone runs because the front side of the play looks exactly like the backside of a zone play. This creates false steps from linebackers and creates easy leverage on the defense at the point of attack. Run enough Counter to go with your base zone runs and you’ll start to see the defense guessing. Not only will your Counter plays be successful, but you’ll also get relief for your base zone runs.
Second, pulling creates false keys in the play action game to distort coverages. Getting a safety to key on a pulling guard is a great way to run a receiver right by him in coverage. Indeed, numerous big plays come from poor eye discipline in the secondary, and the bulk of those come off play action. And even if you don’t pass the ball, putting doubt in the safeties’ minds slows their flow to the line of scrimmage in the run game.
But if you can’t trust your offensive line and especially your interior linemen to pull, what you end up with is a very vanilla running game. That’s what Nebraska had in 2016, and if you compared 2016’s film to 2015’s, you might not recognize the two rushing attacks as being from the same playbook. Nebraska didn’t have an overly dynamic run game in 2015 because they consciously limited Tommy Armstrong’s carries, but it was far more diverse in concepts than 2016 despite running Armstrong more last year.
Fast forward to 2017, insert Jerald Foster and Cole Conrad at LG and C, get Farmer and Gates healthy, add in a dash of redshirt freshmen Boe Wilson, Matt Farniok, and John Raridon, and suddenly Nebraska is back to pulling. A lot.
The most frequent pulling concept Mike Riley and Danny Langsdorf have used thus far in Lincoln is Counter OH, pulling a backside guard and the H-Back to lead the QB or running back to the edge. We saw this concept immediately in the 2017 Spring Game on the very first play from scrimmage:
Not to be outdone, the White team came out of the gate with Nebraska’s second favorite pulling concept, the Pin and Pull from outside zone. This isn’t a deception play so much as it is a way to vary blocking assignments to get better blocking angles on the defensive front. Allowing the tight end to block down on the defensive end rather than requiring the tight end to reach block him makes for an easier assignment on both players. The LT and C pull, and the back’s responsibility is to read the C gap and find space.
The Spring Game made it clear that Langsdorf wants to challenge his offensive line to get out in space, as the game featured more pulling plays in one “scrimmage” than Nebraska ran all last year. And for the most part, Nebraska had pretty good success running the above concepts and others in the Spring Game.
What I’ll be looking for against Arkansas State is whether that same success carries into the season. If so, Nebraska’s running game will be much more diverse and difficult to defend even with QB running game taking a notable dip. Don’t sleep on Tanner Lee though either. He’s not Tommy Armstrong, but he’s not Tom Brady either. He’s a poor man’s Aaron Rodgers when it comes to running with the ball, and there will be times this year he carries it to keep defenses honest.
The Golden Arm: Tanner Lee
And that brings us right to the key to the kingdom. If you’ve followed me at all in the spring, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of Tanner Lee. There is no dispute that Lee has the physical characteristics of an NFL quarterback. Big arm, smooth feet in the pocket, repeatable mechanics, throws an extremely catchable ball. He will look like the most NFL ready QB that Nebraska has had since . . . ? Maybe four decades of football back to Vince Ferregamo.
But ultimately QB play, and especially at the college level where you don’t get 50 hours a week to study film, comes down to the space between a QB’s ears and whether he can make quick, ball responsible decisions. If you look at his stats at Tulane, you’d think Lee is going to struggle in this regard. If, however, you try to contextualize those stats based on discrepancies between Tulane and its competition, the picture gets far murkier.
Frankly, though I know what to expect in part because I’ve seen him in spring and fall practice, things can change when the bright lights come on. One thing I’m comfortable in saying is that he’ll be much, much better in the passing game than what Nebraska has seen for nearly a decade. You’ll see a lot more of these throws, and more importantly, they’ll come on the money play known as third down:
Nebraska was 46.4% on third down in 2016 after going 54.4% in 2015. Frankly, either figure is poor, ending in a lot of failed drives. This number will come up in 2017, and it’s largely because of the man under center.
Where I’m not quite as comfortable is what Lee’s ceiling is as a Nebraska quarterback. If I have two knocks on him, they are that he tends to hold onto the ball a touch too long for my taste and, much like other strong-armed QBs, he occasionally tries to fit things into tight windows. Those things may simply be functions of growing comfortable in this offense after not playing for two years or they may truly be issues that we’ll need to work around moving forward.
In any event, we probably won’t know much about Tanner Lee until he faces Oregon. When we get there, though, I’ll be keying on 3rd down and overall ball security. If the Huskers get PJ Fleck ELITE play or anything close to it from Tanner Lee this year, the offense is headed for huge numbers.
No real shocker here. Nebraska, coming on the heels of recruiting misses in two consecutive classes, finds itself in a weird dichotomy. The Huskers are woefully thin at wide receiver, but their starters may be among the best two units in the Big 10. Again, if you were around this site for any amount of time last year, you learned I’m a Stanley Morgan guy but wasn’t sold on De’Mornay Pierson-El as a receiver. Stan is still the man, but DPE has also won me over this fall. Coming off a series of injuries in 2015 , including ACL repair, DPE never truly got back to 100% in 2016. He is now. If he can stay healthy, I think he has a great shot to make a run at 800 yards or more.
The key, however, is what Nebraska now has in the slot from Keyan Williams, J.D. Spielman, and to the extent they want to put him there or motion him into it, little dynamite Tyjon Lindsey. I’ve talked before about how football is fundamentally a battle of real estate. A great offense forces the defense to defend both horizontally and vertically, and you accomplish that with concept variety and personnel. Jordan Westerkamp was an outstanding receiver for the Huskers, but as his NFL journey shows, he was athletically limited. Specifically, while Westerkamp was clutch on inside and shorter routes, he lacked the ability to threaten vertically out of the slot. Couple that with Armstrong’s apparent inability to see the tight end position, and it left Nebraska’s opponents free to bracket Nebraska’s outside receivers in 2016 to choke out most vertical concepts.
In 2017, however, the game has changed. If you look at Nebraska’s mix at starting WR, they’re perfectly balanced. Stanley is a big, physical receiver you can isolate on 3rd down in 3×1 formations to get first downs. Put him on an island and let him go to work, which is what Nebraska did down the stretch in 2016. DPE is a do-it-all receiver. He can get vertical, though I’m not sure he’s fast enough to be considered a true home run threat. He’s great on screens and underneath drag routes, and while he’s not as polished running routes as Stan, very few players have the acceleration needed to immediately run him down.
The difference, though, this year is the explosiveness from the slot WR spot. Keyan Williams isn’t a dynamic vertical guy and fits a similar mold as Westerkamp, but both Spielman and Lindsey can get up field in a hurry:
If Nebraska is going to take the next step in the passing game, they need the slot guys to become big play threats. Lindsey has practiced more on the outside as DPE’s heir apparent, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him work inside if Keyan Williams’ injury issues continue. And if he stays healthy, Tyjon will leave Lincoln at some point with monster numbers.
Really, Nebraska needs everyone to stay healthy at WR. The group of Stanley, DPE, Spielman and Lindsey are outstanding, and Keyan when healthy is a plus receiver as well. But the drop off is pretty precipitous from there. Due respect to Bryan Reimers, Gabe Rahn, and Brett Classen, but they’re not scaring anyone in the Big 10. They can be solid complementary depth guys, but the starters need to hold up. And a strong helping of Joshua Moore, Cameron Brown, Jaevon McQuitty, and whichever other ELITE recruits want to sign up for 2018 is perfect.
Keep an eye on this position as the season goes on. At a minimum, Nebraska needs to get through the first five games with no injuries from this group. And while they can afford to lose a starter for a couple games, they can’t lose two.
Wrapping It Up
Football is back, and despite a schedule that includes three preseason top 10 teams, I think Nebraska can surprise a lot of people. They’ll need to stay healthy in key spots, and handsome Bob’s defense is going to need to hold up against some great offenses. And as always, run the damn ball.
On Tuesday, we’ll look at a couple ways Nebraska can get their aforementioned slot receivers into the game in 2017. Then we’ll buckle up into Saturday as we start the best time of the year.