Review of Corn Nation:"Midway through Spring Practice, Husker Football Looks Unsettled"

Corn Nation has produced a couple articles that I'd like to take the time to review: Midway Through Spring Practice, Husker Football Looks Unsettled and Plumbing the Creek: Nebraska, CFB, and Uniforms (I don't think I'll touch on the uniforms).

Both are interesting looks at what is going on in Lincoln at the moment. Both point to the uncertain nature that such a transition brings. Both certainly are some cause for concern, but they are not necessarily foreboding doom. I'd like to throw my hat into the ring and give my perspective of what I'm reading from Corn Nation.


Defense is Ahead of Offense
I want to pull a quote from the first article to start with

Midway through Mike Riley's first spring at Nebraska, a trend has become hard to ignore: the defense playing really well; the offense, not so much.


Nevertheless, Mike Riley and his staff have seen enough to know that it's time to make some adjustments while the players are off on spring break. That probably was part of the plan all along, but it's probably a higher priority than it was originally.  Throughout spring practice, I've picked up on four trends from all of the reports from folks who are observing practice.
  • The defensive line, especially the interior of Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine has been dominating.
  • The secondary has been intercepting a lot of passes.
  • The secondary has had opportunities to pick off even more passes, but dropped them.
  • The receivers look really talented.
I'm going to start off by saying that the defense should - with no ifs, ands, or buts - absolutely be destroying the offense right now. I'd only take serious impending disaster if the offense was beating the defense regularly here. Here's why: 1) Defense is more about instincts and reading/reacting while offense is more about technique and timing; 2) Despite the defense's struggles last year, they were taught fundamentally how to play football and that transitions to any form of defense; 3) I haven't yet gone into depth about Riley's defensive preference, but things won't be changing drastically, and probably the biggest simplification in the Spring is merely the simplification of what has previously been run (while the offense undergoes much more of an overhaul); 4) You win the LOS and you typically win football, and Nebraska is stout at DT while the OL is learning a lot of new technique and assignments.

I'm going to continue hyping Collins until everyone sees what I see. Photo Courtesy Travis Shafer/NU Media Relations

How Difficult is it to Change Schemes?
Husker Mike throws in the fact that some of it is a "natural result of changing offensive scheme" and the uncertainty that causes, resulting in hesitation. That is absolutely true, I'm just not sure it is emphasized enough. Beck loved to get off the first level and into the second level. He loved stretch zone and shoulder blocking. Just because the emphasis of the offense has remained a zone running scheme, doesn't mean there aren't massive changed. How/when to come off first level blocks; aiming point for doubles and combos to the second level; adjusting to movement on the front and seeing how defenders react to the nominal play. These are things these guys aren't familiar with, yet the Blackshirt defense has seen Inside Zone run at them time and time again throughout their time in Lincoln.

This is not a zone is zone is zone. This is switching from primarily a 2-3 zone to a 1-3-1 zone in basketball. This is going from a 4-seam, curve, circle-change with a guy that peppers the strikezone to a 4-seam, cutter, change-up pitcher from a guy that's willing to throw some out of the zone to induce some strikeouts (I'm trying here, my baseball days ended in Little League). Your approach  to how you handle each pitcher changes, and just because they are both righties, doesn't mean your approach stays constant. So it's difficult going up against a strong Nose that can two-gap and can fill gaps and force cutbacks, when you aren't really all that familiar with how the backside is supposed to open up the cutback to begin with.


Trimming the Playbook
I think paring down the offense is the right move here. I said previously in my Nebraska offensive primer that the Riley and Langsdorf (I respect his family's dedication to keeping the full German name and not trimming it to "Lang", because that's a mouth full) that the offense isn't intended to be overly complicated. It's inside zone and throwing deep with some wrinkles in between. It isn't a deep playbook, but it is a playbook that relies on executing the base schemes very well. That's what they need to start to establish over spring so that the guys can continue to work on it over the summer. These guys need to know what they should be doing, what they should be looking for, where they need to improve, so that when fall comes around they can have that base established enough to make the offense a little less straight forward. Trimming it down will make it look ugly and predictable in the spring game, but they need to get to the point where they can run it despite being predictable.

Riley and Langsdorf aren't going to throw out the old playbook completely. They've worked with zone read and option and those things before, and they can implement it into the scheme. The players know it well enough to maintain the ability and fit it into the offense. What Nebraska needs to establish right now is the bell cow, the money maker of the scheme. That's what this Spring is for, seeing what they can do, establishing that well enough for summer, and going from there.

So Nebraska is huddling again. This will get some "it's about time!" from curmudgeons and some angst from some spread teams. There are certainly those out there that do not see the value of a huddle anymore. I'm of the point of view that each provides benefits. In an optimal world, you can get everything from a no-huddle system that you would in a huddle, but you have practice limits, and you have mental limits, and that just isn't realistic. Also in an optimal world, you'd find a way to be able to do both. We'll see on that front.

With regards to a huddle, it does help make sure everyone is on the same page. It allows for leaders to step forward and command a group. It allows you to vocalize more information, such as the specified routes (through some sort of code, like the route tree for instance) and motions and formations and things of that nature that a no-huddle makes more difficult. It also doesn't take the time up front for installing a no-huddle offense. I certainly don't think moving back into a huddle more is a death knell by any means, and don't think you should let others tell you otherwise.

Fewer Options In Routes
Another thing brought up is how the Langsdorf offense has fewer option routes. I want to emphasize that this doesn't mean there aren't adjustments to routes based on coverage. Certainly, the stem will still change based on a CB's alignment. The location of your post route will adjust if it's single-high safety or two-high safety.

But let's, for a minute, look at the Tom Osborne offense, made famous by the veer triple option from the I-Formation. Here's the thing about that "triple option": most of the time it wasn't a true triple option, but instead a call whether to give on the dive or run the outside option. The threat of the dive still helped it to function, but the QB understanding before the snap what he is supposed to do helped him execute his assignments more consistently and more quickly, and reduced indecision.

If you're going to run a true triple option, you have to cut other plays out of the playbook, because you have to be able to run each option so well that you avoid that hesitation and indecision. It makes the play call more "predictable", but makes the play itself more irregular.

A lot of spread offenses work in a similar manner for their passing attack. Both spread-to-pass and spread-to-run offenses typically work from a simplified set of routes, sometimes even a limited route tree. To make the offense successful, you have to add additional elements. This comes in the form of the run game and in the form of "options" in the route structure. This fits the emphasis of the scheme: "let athletes be athletes in space", such that a post can become a speed slant or can a streak can become an out. The routes themselves fit more individually, rather than as a whole. Meyer does quite a bit of this, but he limits it to a degree (and limits his passing playbook as a whole) so that it can still be done quickly.

True pro-style offenses manage to do a bit of both, because they have the time to implement the route options and the complex route tree. College offenses need to weigh their preferences more. So college pro-style schemes generally prefer to limit route options to route adjustments. Ultimately, though, the offense tends to work as a whole group. "This guy runs a post to control the safety so that this guy can run the corner route and this guy can run the drive route and we can flood a side of the field. Based on a few defensive movements, know if we can throw the alert (post) of we've cleared the field to define our nominal movement key." The structure of the play doesn't change, because the structure of the play works against any coverage. Now run that scheme fast and run it very well, and the receiver and QB can be on the same page every time and move the ball through the air. You can call your protection and drop a three digit number and that tells everyone in the huddle the play you are running (you don't run "Omaha", you run 872). And you have the full route tree to work with, so that new plays can be implemented quickly and still run at a high speed. But everyone knows how the defense rotates and how the defense looks given certain situations and who is being targeted almost immediately. It avoids confusion and hesitation through some simplification, but you have the entire route tree to work with so that the defense can't jump any one thing through predictability.

I don't think one is inherently better than the other, they are simply different. Certainly, one is a bit more dated and has been around for longer. That doesn't necessarily make it worse. It's proven to work, given the players execute it. The same can be said for a passing system that involves more option routes.