CHICAGO — Heads up, Darwin. We're in your alley. Maybe the Field Museum of Natural History, down the lakeshore from the Hilton Chicago foyer, wants an exhibit.
Think of a creature in a heavy shell. Careful, plodding, comfortable in its impenetrable defense. Watch it then begin to jog, run, find its feet and finally gallop against its nature. The shell fissures, splits in half and falls off. This new thing is a predator — but also prey. For it shook off its shell.
Nebraska coach Bo Pelini leaned slightly forward Thursday to explain, at length, an idea he hatched after the 2009 season — when, in less than two years, he'd built the nation's stingiest scoring defense out of Kevin Cosgrove's ashes. He planned on overhauling the offense, one that seems poised this year to be among the nation's 10 best. One that finished 99th in total yards back in 2009.
“I had a vision in mind of what I saw the offense becoming,” Pelini said.
The vision led to this: top 30 in scoring and total offense last year despite seven games against units ranked in the nation's top 35 total defenses. All-Big Ten candidates at quarterback, running back and receiver. With experience and returning production, NU is poised to break the top 10 nationally in passing and rushing. In the past decade, just two Big Ten teams — Minnesota in 2003 and 2005 — have done that.
Pelini has the highest paid offensive coordinator in the league in Tim Beck, who's created an offense with four tempos, a unit full of speed that “can get big in a hurry.” At running back, Pelini has two sprinters, two bruisers and two fullbacks. His wide receiver captain, Quincy Enunwa, believes the position could rotate eight receivers this year. Pelini's roster has 27 offensive linemen. His 2014 recruiting class, half-done, is three-quarters offensive players.
Nebraska's offense is here, now, a new creature galloping. Pelini calls this offense “user-friendly” and “cutting edge.” He wants to add “efficient” to that vocabulary by the end of this year — that will take fewer turnovers and fewer mental errors in the first halves of games.
“I'm thrilled with the job Tim's done,” said Pelini, who may not quite be a co-author of the offense, but said he worked with Beck to develop the philosophy of it.
He envisioned an attack he wouldn't want to defend — mobile quarterbacks, many formations, quick snaps that make it hard for the defense to win the chess match — so he tabbed a redshirt freshman quarterback (Taylor Martinez) over two players with more experience and recruiting pedigree. Five months later, Pelini picked Tim Beck, who possessed little collegiate play-calling experience, as his coordinator. Beck installed a spread, no-huddle attack that Martinez himself admitted Thursday also bore some resemblance to Oregon's high-octane, much-feared race car.
“We've got some plays from Oregon, Oregon's got some plays from us,” Martinez said.
After growing pains, occasional calls for Martinez's benching and fumbles — lots and lots of fumbles — Pelini fielded as many questions Thursday about the explosiveness of his offense than any other topic. That's a significant shift from the narrative that dogged the middle three years of his tenure, when NU seemed to be flipping through the Rolodex of offensive philosophies, trying whatever could help the calm, star-laden defense from shouldering the whole load. Now the offense bears it, with Beck building a sense of caution into the explosive carnival he's created.
One example: the series of tempos.
“We have basically four different tempos that we can play and we can implement any of them at any time,” Pelini said. “All (Beck) has got to do is, he just tells them what tempo we're going to play at. I like that. There are times when playing as fast as you want to play is not the right way to go.”
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Another: Pelini sees a weakness in the opposing defense. He tells Beck about it. Beck will decide, from there, if he can exploit that weakness within the existing structure of the offense.
“He's a guy that, if it fits, it fits,” Pelini said. “But if it doesn't fit, he's smart enough to know that a good idea is only good if the players can execute it. I trust him in that regard to know 'this is the system.' If you go too far outside of it, then you have one exception, then you have two exceptions, pretty soon you have guys being bogged down, memorizing things that don't fit what they're doing. That's when it becomes a bad idea. I think if you talk to our offensive players, I think they're very confident in what we're doing.”
“(Pelini) is very open-minded,” said the quarterback, who could own most of NU's position records if he stays healthy this year. “He trusts Coach Beck. He knows Coach Beck's very creative. And Coach Bo has to believe in his defense. Because when you have a fast-paced offense, you can go three-and-out in maybe 20 or 30 seconds.”
It's here where Nebraska, in pursuing such an aggressive offense, opens itself up to aggression from opposing offenses. Most aggressive, spread offenses do.
The nation's top 10 total offenses — all of them spread attack, most of them exclusively no-huddle — last year averaged 91st in total defense. None was better than Oregon at 44th. The Huskers finished 35th overall, a number that seems misleading given the unit's stunning collapses at times. Choosing to rely on fifth-year seniors at several positions — a strategy Pelini touted at last year's Big Ten media days — the coach and coordinator-in-duty watched his defense give up 214 points and 2,380 yards in four losses. Big play after big play. The Huskers scored 30 or more points in each of those games and kept pace in three of the games. The defense did not.
“We had guys who physically could hold up, but we struggled in a couple instances in space with the same guys that had played a couple years,” Pelini said. “We just got exposed in a couple areas where we didn't make plays. That's my fault. I need to try and figure out a way where they can make those plays.”
To try to do it, Pelini will dine on a paradox: more complexity and multiplicity with younger players. He wants more of a shell. A better defense. He believes, too, that Nebraska will have it despite the youth in the front seven. Especially on the defensive line, where, in recent years “we've had good players, but I don't know if we've had difference-makers.”
So NU's signed 10 linemen in the past two classes. Pelini said his 2012 class — Aaron Curry, Vincent Valentine, Greg McMullen and Avery Moss — was the best he'd signed to that date. He touted 2013 signee Maliek Collins, saying he “walked in here a grown man.” He said the Huskers may change some of their defensive strategies to accommodate defensive end Randy Gregory, one of the nation's top junior college prospects. Pelini ventured off into defensive theory, on how NFL rules that promote “entertainment” trickle down to college, making it ever harder for defenses to keep up. Defenses want to choke off open spaces. Offenses want to find it.
Pelini, for now, embraces that tension. A man of defense watching his offense grow and run and eat defenses.
“It feels good,” he said. “I haven't always had that.”
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