LINCOLN — A full week of practices in the book, and Nebraska’s offense clearly has a new flavor.
You can tell in the drills NU runs — the ones where quarterbacks Tanner Lee and Patrick O’Brien are occasionally working with receivers on one side of the formation to get the routes precise. And you can tell by the detailed way offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Danny Langsdorf coaches the duo after each rep.
The Huskers have to get their pass game in shape. If it struggles as badly as it did for much of 2016, Bob Diaco’s defense may have to pitch a few shutouts and score its own touchdowns. NU’s run game looked decent in some live action Saturday, but nothing that’d make you think Alabama or Wisconsin.
Nebraska’s pass game, on the other hand, looked very sharp against a pass rush. At least through a week, NU has two quarterbacks spinning the ball better in practice than two fifth-year seniors did last season.
Lee — strong armed and generally accurate — was not a surprise. O’Brien has taken a nice leap since fall camp, though. Some within the program think Lee would have been the starter last season had he been eligible, but he was sitting out because of his transfer from Tulane. O’Brien didn’t have to sit out. Did Langsdorf, in hindsight, regret not giving him more of a chance?
“I don’t think he was ready,” Langsdorf said. “I think he needed that redshirt year. I think he’s made big strides, even since January. I don’t think he was ready to play, and I think he knows that. But he is now. He looks good.”
Langsdorf is right. O’Brien looks sharper than a lot of young quarterbacks I’ve seen roll through here. He didn’t hesitate much in his reads and, unlike Lee — who can occasionally bring that motion down to a quicker sidearm — O’Brien consistently stuck his ground in the pocket.
Both found all the open spots in NU’s zone defense. Lee probably has the edge — he’s a little taller, his arm is a little stronger — but O’Brien’s right there. This race may not be the coronation some made it out to be.
Nine more notes and takes from week one of spring:
» Diaco’s focus on the outside linebackers has been notable. These positions may be the hardest to play in Diaco’s defense because they have to do so many things on the field, and they’re typically the guys designed to be the most dynamic athletes. I’ll have more from this interview, but I had a lengthy chat with Diaco’s 3-4 defense mentor — former NFL and college coach Al Groh, who outlined each position. The outside linebackers, Groh said, are the equivalent of “3-4-5 hitters on a baseball team.” That should give you some sense of their importance in the defense.
» Still, NU will need that defensive line to be stout. Good work early in practice from junior Mick Stoltenberg and ends Carlos Davis and Freedom Akinmoladun, who are still getting used to remembering which side to line up on based on the formation. Nebraska is in need of quality depth, and Khalil Davis may be joined by DaiShon Neal, who had a few impressive moments in pass rush drills Saturday.
» NU’s top secondary, for now, is Chris Jones and Joshua Kalu at cornerback with Antonio Reed and Aaron Williams at safety. Reed at safety is interesting.
The Huskers have options at safety, including Kieron Williams, JoJo Domann and Tony Butler. If Reed is the best of the bunch, it’ll mean he had a good spring. Bob Elliott and Diaco won’t roll a good athlete out there for the sake of it.
Side note: It’d be fun to watch Jones — No. 8 — square for about 10 reps in a row against wideout Stanley Morgan, also No. 8. They might be the best players on their sides of the ball.
» Senior Chris Weber looks like he was made to play inside linebacker in a 3-4. He’s physical and tough and possesses good instincts. Even better: There’s usually at least one Chris Weber somewhere in a Nebraska high school every year or two.
» Coach Mike Riley has a history of using as many players on offense as he thinks can fit into the game plan, so the longer backs Devine Ozigbo, Mikale Wilbon and Tre Bryant stay jumbled up at the top, the more likely guys like Austin Rose or Wyatt Mazour might see a few snaps. Riley compared Mazour to former North Platte and Chadron State star Danny Woodhead — which is kind, to say the least — but Mazour is a shifty, tough-nosed guy.
» It’s hard to tell a lot about an offensive line as a reporter, but based on the pass protection Saturday, coach Mike Cavanaugh’s top bunch — which included center Michael Decker — did well. The backup right tackle is Matt Farniok, while Cole Conrad is working some at left tackle.
Conrad, Farniok and David Knevel probably all need to be prepared this season to play at some point.
» Since I’ve tended to be skeptical of De’Mornay Pierson-El’s growth as a receiver, when the guy shows up big, it’s fair for me to say he did. Saturday, Pierson-El looked every bit like a top-end Big Ten receiver. He caught the ball in traffic and ran crisp routes. If he is that good opposite Morgan, NU’s receiving corps won’t fall off much. Also: Bryan Reimers is going to play. A lot.
» The week before spring football started, Riley and his wife, Dee, spent time in Costa Rica for an event put on by Adidas. Several other Adidas coaches attended.
Riley said he particularly enjoyed talking to Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen. Riley knew Mullen from their joint appearance on ESPN’s broadcast of the 2015 national title game between Ohio State and Oregon. Riley didn’t know Sumlin as well, but really hit it off with him.
» On the recruiting front, nothing close to official, lots of balls still in the air, but Nebraska assistants will work some satellite camps this summer. Also: Don’t be stunned if NU partners with some other Power Five programs for at least one or two camps.
On with the Rewind.
» 122nd: Nebraska’s national rank in completion rate last season. Husker quarterbacks connected on 50.3 percent of their passes in 2016. Only Rutgers (47.9 percent) was worse in the Big Ten — or among Power Five conference teams, for that matter.
Since joining the Big Ten, NU has ranked 87th (2015), 113th (2014), 73rd (2013), 47th (2012) and 87th (2011) in completion rate. That’s some compelling evidence that, whatever his flaws, Taylor Martinez was a more efficient passer than Tommy Armstrong. Still — you’d think NU cracks the top 60 this season, right?
» 114th: Nebraska’s national rank in third-down completion rate, which was 46.7 percent. That was 12th in the Big Ten.
Since joining the league, NU has ranked 57th (2015), 116th (2014), 82nd (2013), 72nd (2012) and 26th (2011) in completion rate. Again: Martinez was better. (It helped to have Quincy Enunwa, Kenny Bell, Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton, too).
» 6.9: Yards per attempt from Nebraska’s quarterbacks in 2016, the second-lowest average from NU since joining the Big Ten. Low completion rates can sometimes point to, at the very least, high yards per attempt averages — Air Force was No. 1 nationally in yards per attempt and 126th nationally in completion rate — but that wasn’t so for Nebraska, which ranked 78th nationally in yards per attempt.
In short: NU’s pass game was inefficient and fairly unexplosive. Not good. With two fifth-year seniors! Wow.
» 64.9: The average completion rate of Oregon State’s last four seasons that Riley coached there. Most — but not all — of those passes were thrown by Sean Mannion, who is in the NFL now. You could argue that Mannion was the best of Riley’s quarterbacks at Oregon State, so perhaps 64.9 percent is too high of a bar. Sixty percent wouldn’t be.
» 60.8: The average third-down completion rate of Oregon State’s last four seasons that Riley coached there. Again, almost all Mannion.
Wow. Nebraska’s passing game has to get better in a hurry.
» Minnesota has started its first practice under P.J. Fleck, whose maiden practice voyage was captured by Minnesota’s cameras. Fleck coaches like an assistant would — loud, active, constant chatter, constant motion. That said, he comes across as quite likable — even when he’s trying to rip a ball from a Gopher receiver during a drill. He says “elite” a lot, too.
» Wisconsin starts spring football Tuesday. A hunch: The Badgers’ pass game may be a little ahead of the run game. UW returns quarterback Alex Hornibrook, tight end Troy Fumagalli — who has burned NU two years in a row — and several starting offensive linemen. Running backs Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale have graduated, and Pittsburgh transfer Chris James (690 yards, four touchdowns for the Panthers in two seasons) will battle with Taiwan Deal and Bradrick Shaw for the starting running back job.
Lots of March Madness upsets!
I always pick at least a No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5 seed to lose in the first round, and I tend to throw in a No. 2 seed for good measure. I haven’t settled on my Final Four yet, but I’m confident who won’t be there: Gonzaga, Oregon, Arizona or UCLA.
Since 2000, four teams west of the Rocky Mountains — UCLA three times in the mid-2000s and Arizona in 2001 — have made the Final Four. That’s four teams out of 68, or 5.88 percent.