Big Ten Breakdown 2012: Nebraska Cornhuskers, Part 2, Offense
Last week, I got my feet wet with Nebraska, looking at the program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Huskers will do this season.
This week, I'll look at the 2012 Nebraska offense.
2011 scoring offense: 29.2 PPG (fourth in the conference), total offense: 379.9 YPG (fifth), rushing YPC: 4.62 (third), passing efficiency: 125.78 (seventh)
Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 4.0 (2011, Big Ten), 7.3 (2007-2010, Big 12)
Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Fourth (2011)
Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Eighth (2007 and 2009)
Returning starters: QB Taylor Martinez, RB Rex Burkhead, WR Kenny Bell, WR Quincy Enunwa, TE Kyler Reed, TE Ben Cotton, OG Seung Hoon Choi, OG Spencer Long, OL Andrew Rodriguez, OT Tyler Moore
Open Positions: FB, WR, OL
Offensive Formation: Multiple
Offensive Philosophy: Run-first and create mismatches
Passing Scheme: Attempts to be West Coast, but has not done a good job
Rushing scheme: Read option
The problem was, heading into the season, the "new" offense was obscured by vagaries from Pelini (via The Sporting News)—“'Trust me. We are putting together a scheme that is going to be able to take advantage of what other people are trying to do to us. We’re going to be able to attack them.'”
And from Beck (via Nebraska blog CornNation.com):"I want our players to understand our offense, and to run our offense. I don't want them to run plays."
After all the waiting and secretiveness, what can be said about the new and improved Cornhusker offense?
Michael Flood McNutty on OpposingViews.com described it as having "a severe identity crisis. It wants to be so many different things—but doesn't do any one thing very well."
Following the Huskers' early October offensive collapse against Wisconsin, Beck said (per Madison.com), "We just weren't ready."
The simple statistical truth is that 2011 was Pelini's second-worst offensive showing, though not by much.
Nebraska scored a respectable 29.2 PPG, but against top-25 scoring defenses it only managed 17.6 PPG in five contests.
The key issue was that Nebraska is a run-heavy team that, for the last two years, has been unable to move the ball when the opposing defense has squashed the run and rendered the Huskers one-dimensional.
As mentioned in the first installment of this series, this is a big year for Pelini. In 2012, he will have to prove he is Tom Osborne (legendary) and not Frank Solich (good). Anything less might not be enough for Cornhusker fans.
It is well known that Pelini's defense will hold up its end of the bargain.
The issue has been the offense. This will have to be the year that said offense finally breaks out of its shell.
In 2010, redshirt freshman Taylor Martinez completed 59.2 percent of his passes and had a 138.78 passer efficiency rating. He rushed for 965 yards, 5.96 YPC and 12 touchdowns.
In 2011, sophomore Taylor Martinez completed 56.3 percent of his passes and had a 126.52 passer efficiency rating. He rushed for 874 yards, 4.62 YPC and nine touchdowns.
Most importantly, Nebraska averaged 29.2 PPG in 2011. It averaged 30.9 PPG in 2010.
It is also worth noting that Martinez was dinged up in 2010, and, in fact, missed one game.
These numbers don't bode well for the oft-maligned signal-caller. It doesn't seem like he's making any progress, and as the accompanying video attests, his mechanics are laughable.
According to Omaha.com, Martinez has been working with Steve Calhoun, a renowned Los Angeles-based quarterback coach. However, this leaves two questions.
Firstly, what is Tim Beck, who is not only the Nebraska OC, but also the quarterback coach, doing?
Secondly, as a junior—Martinez was a sophomore in the video—with three years in the system, he should be past mechanical issues as egregious as the video demonstrates, and it leaves one to believe that Martinez's problems are more of an issue with the coaching.
T-Magic can unquestionably be effective against lesser defenses, at which point he and the Husker offense can afford to be one-dimensional. On the other hand, the Husker offense, and particularly the passing game, stalls against anything approaching a quality defense.
Against 2011's four ranked opponents, Martinez had an efficiency rating of 105.94. He rushed for 170 yards, 2.66 YPC and one touchdown. Not surprisingly, Nebraska went 1-3 in those games, averaging 17.8 PPG.
This will be a huge year for Martinez. Will he ever be a great quarterback or has he reached his limits? After three years in the system, if he doesn't show any improvement then one can assume the latter.
He will be backed up by sophomore Brion Carnes, who, at least physically, is similar to Martinez.
Whatever Nebraska fans feel they lack at quarterback, they are more than happy with their situation at running back.
That begins with senior Rex Burkhead.
Last year—his first in the featured role—Burkhead gained 1,357 yards for 4.80 YPC and 15 touchdowns. He also had 21 receptions for 177 yards.
Look for the Huskers to continue to lean on Burkhead, who is the team's emotional leader, as well as its leading rusher.
The backup will be true sophomore Ameer Abdullah. Last year, Abdullah was more known for his kick return exploits than his play out of the backfield. Nonetheless, he recently told HuskerExtra.com, with "'a year under our belts and knowing what college football's about, we're ready to prove ourselves.'"
The "we" in the above referred to Abdullah and fellow true sophomore Aaron Green. However, since the Husker Extra article, Green opted to transfer (per CBSsports).
This leaves Nebraska shorthanded in the backfield.
After Abdullah, the most likely player to get carries will be true freshman Imani Cross.
In March, Beck promised (via USA Today) to get Burkhead more time on the sideline. The problem is he made that promise before Green announced his transfer.
Receiving the bulk of the carries shouldn't be too large a burden for Burkhead, as he came in second in the Big Ten and 10th nationally last season with 283 carries, but fresh legs always help.
Pelini will also have to find somebody to replace three-year starting fullback Tyler Legate. Currently, the most likely candidates are juniors Mike Marrow and C.J. Zimmerer.
Burkhead's and Abdullah's health will be a priority for Pelini, but assuming they remain healthy, Nebraska will have one of the best pair of running backs in the Big Ten.
No Nebraska receiver has caught more than 44 passes or had more than 796 yards receiving for the past three seasons.
In 2008, two receivers topped 60 receptions, but those receivers are long gone.
Nebraska isn't going to pass much nonetheless, the Huskers have to establish some playmakers—or at least one playmaker—at receiver in order to keep opposing defenses honest. Failing that, they will continue to get shut down by better defenses that render their offense one-dimensional.
This issue has been thrown at the feet of beleaguered signal-caller Taylor Martinez, but it is unfair and unrealistic to solely blame him.
Last year, Nebraska had to replace its top wide receiver, though every other pass catcher of significance, aside from tight end Mike McNeil, returned.
This season, every player that caught a pass—outside of receiver Brandon Kinnie and the aforementioned Legate and Green—is coming back.
The most notable returnee is sophomore Kenny Bell, who led the Huskers with 32 receptions for 461 yards and three touchdowns. He is a player to watch, and is on many preseason All-Big Ten teams, including Phil Steele's second team.
Junior Quincy Enunwa will also be called upon to improve on his 21-reception, 293-yard, two-touchdown performance in 2011.
Lastly, sophomore Jamal Turner, and senior Tim Marlowe round out the experience in the receiver group.
There is plenty of experience at tight end, though some of that experience didn't show up in 2011.
Last year, then-junior Kyler Reed caught 15 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown. Not bad, but a considerable letdown from his All-Big 12, 22-reception, 395-yard, eight-touchdown season in 2010.
Meanwhile, then-junior Ben Cotton tacked on his own 14 catches for 189 yards and zero touchdowns.
If Cotton can repeat his 2011 performance and Reed can get back to the way he was playing in 2010, the Husker tight end position will be in good hands.
As with quarterback, this is a big year for the Cornhusker pass catchers. As CornNation.com recently noted, "Nebraska could have one of the top receiving corps in the Big Ten," if the Huskers can find some consistency.
There can be no excuses for another subpar year.
Five offensive linemen have been drafted in the Bo Pelini era, none of them taken higher than the fifth round. No Husker offensive lineman has been taken in the first round since Dave Rimington in 1983.
This is something of a letdown for a program that prides itself on its offensive line tradition, a tradition that Tulsa World acknowledged in 1994.
This failure to produce a road grader on the line could change if Jeremiah Sirles finishes his college career strong. He was the starting left tackle as a redshirt freshman in 2010. However, his playing time dropped precipitously in 2011.
Tyler Moore is in the same boat that Sirles was following his freshman year—tons of talent and a good year for a freshman, but now it's time to bring it to the next level.
Both are the front-runners for the open tackle positions.
Meanwhile, Spencer Long will reprise his role as a starting guard, while former walk-on Seung Hoon Choi and former highly-recruited, blue-chip prospect Andrew Rodriguez battle it out for the other guard position.
With the graduation of Mike Caputo and his 27 career starts, center will be the biggest issue. The most likely player to take over will be junior Cole Pensick, but senior Justin Jackson will push him.
Omaha.com noted that "offensive line depth will be a strength" for the Cornhuskers, as the plan is to play more linemen in a game than they previously have.
Nevertheless, the question doesn't concern depth as much as overall production.
According to CornNation.com, the Husker line took some steps forward last season. Now, it will have to announce whether it is a force to be reckoned with or a mid-level group that gets by on prestige.
This is a huge year for Martinez and the Husker offense—and let's face it, the offense's ceiling will be determined by Martinez.
In 2010, he had receivers and a line, but it was his first year on the field and he was thrown into the fire.
In 2011, he had experience, but a new bunch of receivers and a mostly new line.
Next year, he'll return all but one key pass catcher and should have a better, or at least more experienced O-line, than he had last year.
How the Nebraska offense does in 2012 is bigger than Martinez and the Huskers' limitations for the duration of his career.
It is about the ceiling for the duration of Bo Pelini's time in Lincoln.
Even though the defense underperformed last season, Pelini has proven he can coach up a D.
The question, and the issue keeping Pelini from joining Devaney and Osborne on the Cornhusker pantheon, is his offense.
An unpressured, third-year college quarterback with the mechanics that Martinez displayed in the above video shouldn't be on the field. This is not a slight to Martinez. He is a college quarterback. The coaches are supposed to teach him. Martinez's failures are the coaches' failures.
Can Pelini put a big-time offense on the field? Can Pelini coach up a quarterback or will he rely on inherent talent? Can Pelini field a dominant offensive line? Can he take advantage of playmakers at wide receiver?
Up until now, offensive shortcomings over the last four years came with an excuse, but the time for excuses is over.
If Martinez takes tangible steps forward as a quarterback then the Nebraska offense will be one of the two best in the conference.
If not, it will be about the same as it was last year.
Until I see differently, I have to go with the latter.
Coming next Tuesday, an overview and breakdown of Nebraska's defense.
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