Coaching Points: 2015 Nebraska Spring Game

Nati Harnik, Associated Press
Base Offense: 11 personnel, mostly gun, lots of trips sets
Defense: Mostly 4-3 Over w/ Apex LB to slot, looked like Cover 4 base.

Quarterback Battle
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
I was high on Darlington as a recruit, and it was nice to see him perform well, but I still think this is Armstrong's job to lose. I'm not sure what Riley's past is with splitting QBs (there may be some history there in 2012 and 2008), but I think nominally, Armstrong still gives you the most out of the position right now. His first throw of the game shows you what he's capable of when he gets his feet right and gets his shoulder turned toward his target. Rolling left he threw a dart to the far boundary that was perfectly timed  and had great velocity and was right where it needed to be.

On top of that, I think the run game is going to need some help (more on that in a bit). Armstrong provides a lot of help on that front. He has enough speed to get to the edge as a runner and is a pretty strong runner for his size as well. On top of that, that read scheme really holds the backside DE to allow the Nebraska OL operate in a way it is more accustomed.

Now, you still saw some of the same issues that haunted Armstrong last season. His downfield passes still lack the touch and accuracy they need. I talked previously about the makeup of Mike Riley's offense and about how it loves to attack downfield. Many of those downfield passes are what a West Coast Offense coach calls "Alerts". Alerts are a bit like Hots, in that you make the throw given certain circumstances presented by the defense. A Hot route is used to beat the blitz, an Alert route is designed to take advantage of one-on-one coverage deep. There were a couple times when Armstrong got stuck on that Alert route and never got off of it. Once he made the throw, and it was the correct decision but didn't give the WR a chance (a big no-no), the next time there was obvious FS help over the top, and an accurate throw would have had a high opportunity to get picked. These passes need to be more accurate because they force the defense to play back at all times. Single deep routes hold the safety back and help the run game and underneath pass game, including all the tunnel screens you saw.

That said, I still like what Armstrong provides. His short and intermediate throws can be deadly. He has the arm strength, and shows that when his mechanics are solid his accuracy underneath is solid as well. I think the offense provides him with some simple reads, particularly the play action off of zone read which floods a side of the field. This limits his reads and lets him get the ball out of his hands or run with it. This really stretches the field laterally and makes Nebraska dangerous on the ground. But those downfield passes need to improve.

I'm going to start with something that I think is going a bit unnoticed, and it's the fact that Bush wasn't set up with a run game that was going to succeed. Going against both starting DTs was going to make most of the run game very difficult for the offense and was going to force them to try to attack the edge more.

That said, Bush's mechanics are still very, very raw. Even on some of his completions, such as the one right before half, his feet were really close together, he didn't step correctly (or at all), his shoulders weren't square, etc. Yes, he got the ball there, but the point is that it's all very inconsistent. That pass took a while to get to the WR and likely limited some of the run after the catch. Some other passes where he had mechanical issues weren't even close to the target, and that includes a lot of underneath throws.

Part of the issue was probably nerves, but I didn't see the mental part of the game clicking enough for him to take over the offense. I think you can clearly see the potential. You saw his ability to break the pocket and make some plays. But he isn't a strong enough passer, and he missed some pretty clear read option reads that prevented big gains. He just didn't look ready to me yet, though if Armstrong were to go down, I think Bush can provide a very nice change of pace QB.

I love Darlington's mechanics. Most of you likely know the story, but he's the son of a coach - a QB coach at that - and his mechanics are extremely sound. He gets the ball out quick, his shoulders and feet are always where they need to be, and because of that he is accurate and has great velocity on his short and intermediate routes. He's also a good enough athlete to not only "keep the defense honest", but to actually threaten the defense with his legs.

Now, I'm not sure about his downfield arm strength; that's where he will likely struggle a bit. Riley likes to go downfield, and it will be difficult for Darlington to consistently provide that threat. Not that Armstrong is accurate enough to provide that threat, but if a defense isn't concerned about the ball getting over the top of them, then that threat isn't there at all. We didn't see a lot of downfield throws from Darlington, but you did see a great dink and dunk passer that can move the ball through the air.

I'd still be interested in seeing how he performs against a more multiple defense. The Nebraska defense was very vanilla in their coverage, so Darlington pretty much knew what was coming. He provides a very different skill set than Armstrong, and is a guy I could see getting some snaps based on opponent. But he may still be a year away as of right now.

I didn't see enough from Fyfe to make him a part of the conversation. While his mechanics are pretty good, he isn't as solid as Darlington in that regard. He had a little stronger arm probably, but wasn't as accurate and was a bit late with his reads. He was cleaner working from under center, which Riley probably likes, but I don't think we saw enough from him for him to be in the top 3.

And I only got to watch the first half, so I didn't get to see crowd favorite Stanton throw.

Run Game
Offensive Line

You can see how this OL was designed, and you can see how it conflicts with Riley's base Inside Zone running scheme. This was an OL that was designed to work in space, to get to the second level, to be quick more than over-powering. They were able to get some movement on the backside of the IZ (once when Collins stood straight up), but overall, they struggled to get the vertical displacement that is the goal of an IZ team. IZ will likely still be the base, but I think you're going to see much more of the constraints this year than you typically would. This rushing attack is stronger in other ways.

Namely, pin and pull. Pin and pull doesn't really force anyone on the OL to move defenders. Instead, you get to pin some guys inside and then pull into space. At that point, you can use a defenders momentum against them and carry them away from the play. Nebraska had more than a few good runs with this scheme, and it looks to be something they lean on this year. The OL is still really good in space, a carry over from last year. I know there were times when the OL underperformed last season, but in games where they could get to the second level they looked great.

I saw a single back Power O play, and a little bit of stretch (which was the base under Beck) as well. I think Stretch and Pin and Pull will be the most explosive plays for Nebraska, but Inside Zone will still be what the offense revolves around as far as the run game. Put together, it will allow them to lull the defense asleep a bit between the tackles and then get some nice runs to the outside.

Running Backs
Nati Harnik, Associated Press
A bit difficult to judge at this point, and I don't think anyone ran away with the job, but I think Newby leads at the moment. All the RBs did well on the pin and pull, getting right on the pulling OL's butt and riding it to the edge. But where Newby stood out was his vision behind the LOS. He had several nice cuts to the backside of the play and knew how to get vertical from there. I think he still has a bit too much wasted movement, particularly once he gets in space, and that limits some of his explosiveness, but I think he's the most consistent back.

Cross is the same guy as he was last season: a guy that takes what he is given and not a lot more. There isn't much flashy about Cross, but as a guy that you need to pick up 2-4 yards, I think he's a very good bet. He still runs strong and can stick a foot in the ground and get vertical. Asking him to do more as an every down back forces some of his weaknesses out and doesn't always see him play within his strengths as a downhill runner with low pads. I like him as a short yardage back and as a guy you can bring in as a change of pace from time to time and really run the ball down the defense's throat.

Taylor was decent in the carries he was given, but didn't really standout, and I think has a similar role as Newby but isn't as good yet. I didn't see Wilbon in the first half from my recollection.

Wide Receivers
You are going to see a lot of Pierson-El this year. Get sweeps, screens, and as a downfield target. You can see his explosiveness when the ball is in his hands. You didn't see too much of him in the Spring Game overall, but from what I saw, he's going to get a ton of touches this year and really help to stretch the field both laterally and vertically.

Your second WR is almost certainly Westerkamp, who had a really good day. He brings a lot to the slot position and runs some really good routes. Obviously, he can be used as a screen threat as well. I expect most of his work to come underneath.

Turner also had a good day and looked to run good routes. As a guy that will likely be a third WR in the offense or so, that consistency will really benefit the offense if they can get to that progression in the offense.

Tight Ends
Cotton really impressed me with his blocking in the spring game. He dominated Akinmoladin on one play, allowing for a huge cut back. He did great on some pins, performed several arc blocks really well, and all around looks like a very viable TE that should get a lot of usage this year.

On top of that, Sutten looks like more than an adequate backup TE. He struggled in some areas, but overall was solid in the run game and really helped the rushing attack. He can make some plays in the pass game as well. I think the TE position may have jumped out to me more than any other position in this game.

I'm going to keep this pretty short, because you know my feelings on the DTs. Collins is a guy that will be extremely disruptive this year, and the OL didn't have much of a chance against him. His two main issues last year were properly reading the blocks in front of him (for instance, when zone based teams would run Power O), or getting a bit high on the backside of the play. He got too high once in this game and got pushed back, but other than that he looked very good.

Valentine is pretty much the same. I don't think he's quite as explosive, but consistently wins at the point of attack. This will be one of the top DT tandems in the B1G this year.

I tought the backups looked solid as well, but clearly a step behind the starters. They should provide more ability to rotate this year, but they had some inconsistencies in the run game that the starters didn't.

McMullen is what McMullen is. He doesn't really stand out, but he's pretty consistent in the run game, holds the point of attack well, and can eventually get to the QB. The issue here is that I didn't see anyone else stand out. I was very unhappy with what I saw from Akinmoladin in the run game for the most part. He seemed to get pushed around way too much yet. Someone really needs to step up from this group, because right now there is very little edge threat that isn't generated by line stunts of the DTs pushing the pocket. May platoon this group on run vs pass downs.

I expect less rotation this year than last year. I liked what I saw from Banderas in the middle. He read plays well and really got off blocks better than most of the other LBs. He should provide a constant presence in the middle, especially with the two DTs in front of him.

Rose-Ivey seems to have bounced back pretty well. He's a guy that can shoot gaps from the LB position and make plays in the backfield. Both he and Banderas looked solid tackling as well, hopefully no longer over-thinking the defense.

The rest of the LB group didn't show too much. I think they need to get better at reading the plays quickly, as there was still too much hesitation from the group overall and that allowed the OL to get to the second level or pin them inside too often. I admittedly focused more on the offense, but I think a few more guys need to standout or at least flash from this position to get a solid starting group with some depth.

Most of the offense was underneath and the camera angles were tight, so I wasn't able to see much. The safeties looked strong in run support from their Cover 4 scheme, particularly Anderson. Kalu struggled in coverage, whiffing completely on a jam. Other than that, I don't have a lot of take aways here.

Not a bad showing in the spring game, though certainly not great. It looked to me like there was just a lot of thinking going on and a coaching staff still trying to nail down the base offense. I think they are going to be forced to work away from their offense quite a bit with the personnel they have. More underneath throws, more read option, more run plays to the edge. But toeing that line won't be easy. Things should certainly get better as these guys work together over the summer though.

Raw Notes
NT playing a 0T and the 3T playing a 2T. Can two gap with both. First play doesn't look like read. IZ to Newby. Nice cutback

Tunnel screen. Young (?, LB) makes a nice play to make the OL whiff and wraps on Pierson-El. Williams does well to retrace back to the LOS from his DT position when he feels he's being released and this doesn't allow Pierson-El to get inside.

DTs have wide gap on 3rd and 3. OL gets out onto LBs way too easily but Maurice still has a shot to make a play because Alex Lewis doesn't occupy him well enough when he takes over the block. Must continue driving the first level and get hands on him so that he can't disengage. Should have been a bigger gain. Newby running hard though and falling forward.

Nice simple PA off a stretch zone look. Armstong gets his shoulders turned to target and gets ball out on come back on time to Westerkamp. Great throw with great time.

Speed sweep to Pierson-El. Nice arc block by TE (Sutten) and Lead block by the FB (Janovich). Arc block gets into safety and prevents him from filling and FB can kick the CB to open an alley on the edge. First look from offset I. Jones has to be stronger on the edge as he has leverage responsibility. He can't let that play get so wide before turning it back in.

Lots of sets with an H-back. Nebraska goes split zone read. Nebraska DL owns playside as DTs get penetration and push. Akinmoladin does terrible from his backside DE position. Starts chasing, doesn't maintain responsibility. Stands up, then gets driven backward by the TE (Sutten) for several yards. Young almost gets pancaked. Nice cutback by Newby that should be a modest gain but breaks because of those two.

Pin and Pull Sweep. Newby does good to stay on his pulling OL's butt and riding the play out.

After 1st down on IZ they return to pin and pull. I like getting these OL on the move. They are athletic and a little undersized, so don't ask them to drive the DTs. Let them pin and then move behind it. LBs are really late to diagnose and are shooting down, not playing keys but playing tendency. CB (Kalu) does a poor job recognizing crack block, doesn't exchange. Cochran rides the OL pulling and just follows into EZ.

TD Red.

OZ PA. TE does good to pin DE inside before releasing. They flood the field. I like that Rose-Ivey (LB) stops Bush from getting to the outside and forces him to throw back across the body to the TE underneath. Careful with the throw as you put him right into Rose-Ivey.

IZ read and killed playside by Collins and Co. RB (Cross) cuts back and Banderas reads the play great, sees DL owns playside, and shadows the RB. Best of all, when RB cuts back, Banderas meets him on the edge and brings his feet and wins the battle of getting low.

Collins and Valentine are just shredding the white interior OL. It isn't a fair match up. White forced to go outside a bunch or cut back. Bush keeps on IZ read. Cockrell has to win the tackle low here. Tackles high and bush can push for 1st down, but a hold brings it back.

White punt.

OZ Read (lots of OZ to start). OL gets very little push. Newby reads his key though and cuts it vertical very quickly. Cotten (TE) gets a great seal block on the backside as he keeps the DE pinned back and doesn't allow him to constrict the line. Weber (LB) needs to do better when taking on a block. RT gets him blocked up and gets hands maybe a little more outside the shoulder pads than you want, but Weber doesn't get away at all. Really like how quickly Newby reads this though. But then Newby wastes some movement which doesn't allow the play to go as far.

I like the alert read by Armstrong, he has the fade and the one-on-one match up. But this is a play that the WR (Riley) has the DB (Kalu) turned and beat. Kalu doesn't slow Riley at all on his release and it's clean. Have to put the ball in a position for the WR to make a play on it. Downfield accuracy a problem.

Great read by Alexander that doesn't bite on Westerkamp's outside release. He stays right on his heals and the lack of separation doesn't allow the TE (Cotten) to get any block on him. Jumps the play behind the LOS. Great play there.

FG Red

Lots of jet sweep looks to threaten laterally. One issue with Collins is when the play is run opposite of him, he'll tend to chase and chase high. Here, he stands up and the OL can get under his pads. Cross cuts back to where Collins should be, but Collins is getting driven backward and catches cross after 5 yard gain.

Miscommunication by Collins and McMullen as they take the same gap on rush lane. Bush could scramble but decides to throw. Bad throw.

Really bad miscommunication from the DBs and LB on the mesh concept. Both follow the guy that goes over the top and the underneath throw is wide open. Bush guides the ball though instead of throwing it, trying to take something off the throw to a wide open target. Sails the pass really bad.

Punt White

Floooding left side of the field. Armstrong reads "Alert" but the FS is coming over the top. Bad read, but throws the ball toward sideline away from bracket.

Williams (DT) does good with his hands and owns Kondolo. FB picks wrong hole and lets MIKE run free, lead draw is dead once that happens.

Poor communication between LT and LG, stunt allows first through to split and the loop to run free, forcing Armstrong to scramble.

Punt Red

Bush is really struggling throwing. This is a hitch, and his mechanics and arm just don't work. Ball taking a long time to get there on next screen. Ball is fluttering a lot. Have to look at his grip and release more.

Collins gets low on RG and blows up front side of play and play is quickly forced to cut back on IZ read. Poor read by Bush, though McMullen does a good job keeping shoulders square to mesh and squeezing down on play, but Bush can get to the edge here, particularly with an arc block by the TE to the second level. Also like how Banderas is getting off blocks from the MIKE position.

Punt White

Pin and pull, they are doing good pinning and like the OL in space.

Like Darlington's accuracy, bad drop by Sutton. Bench route gets there on time and should allow TE to turn and run up the sideline. I like Darlington's accuracy, even throw to Taylor, but ball has to get pushed down field a little.

Ridder does a nice job stepping in from his safety position to force tunnel screen back further. CB on that side did a really good job setting the edge as well.

Great throw by Darlington. Puts the ball right on the mark on the in route and lets Turner run after the catch.

Great job by LB (Boryca?) to get outside the play and blow up the block, not allowing play outside of him on pin and pull sweep.

Good pocket presense by Darlington, but let momentum take throw to sideline away from WR (Turner) breaking open.

Fyfe needs to command the pocket a bit better. Stepping into pressure  a couple times doesn't help his accuracy as he's getting hit.

Great pass by Darlington getting over the top of first level, gets it on time to receiver going outside.

Darlington, not so clean under center.

Touch to the outside is really good from Darlington. Get over the WILL LB and in front of the CB.

Great read on zone read by Darlington. Gets outside on IZ Read. Lots of arc blocks by H-backs that helped seal the WILL.

Ridder bites down hard on IZ Read, Darlington pulls and slot runs a wheel down the sideline and Ridder can't recover on Turner.

Rose-Ivey shoots a gap and makes a big play on zone read.

Bush escapes the arm grab, but doesn't set his feet well at all. He makes the play, but I want to see his feet get set before the throw so that this throw is consistent.