Nebraska should be preseason ranked top 10 or at the worst, top 15…by almost everyone. The defense tore people apart last year, and the team was a second (or so) from playing in a BCS game. It's all good, yeah?
OK, maybe not.
Things aren't perfect now, because they weren't perfect last year. And if Husker fans are to spend any time actually worrying about stuff rather than only finding the positive in anything, you can figure that there are some things they honestly don't have any idea about. But there's one which has to top the list.
Yes, the offense. What else can you say about a team that led the country in scoring defense, pass efficiency defense and absolutely stifled the Texas Longhorns, at the time one of the highest rated offenses in the country?
It's that Husker offense that had people speculating all year about where would Nebraska be if they could have just put the ball into the end zone. Well, we don't know that, of course. But we do know where they finished the season:
- 51st in fewest interceptions thrown
- 60th in fumbles lost
- 62nd in rushing offense
- 69th in Red Zone offense
- 69th in 3rd down conversion percentage
- 75th in scoring offense
- 79th in passing efficiency
- 80th in punting
- 93rd in fewest penalties per game
- 99th in total offense
- 101st in passing offense
- 111th in offensive first downs
On the good side of things the passing offensive numbers aren't good, because Nebraska all but ditched the passing game around the mid-point of the season. The Huskers had 12 passing touchdowns through Iowa State (seven games) and in the final seven they had five. So, half-full mentality tells you that they got better in the passing game from an efficiency standpoint, the three interceptions against Texas notwithstanding. The half-empty mentality tells you that if it ain't working, quit using it, which is what Nebraska tried very hard to do.
And the defense was so good it almost worked out.
But how about now?
Without Ndamukong Suh, one of the most decorated defensive tackles ever. Without Larry Asante and Matt O'Hanlon, two other members of the top-five list at Nebraska in regard to tackles on the season, along with O'Hanlon leading the team with six interceptions. Without Phillip Dillard who just happens to be the fourth member of that quintet on the tackle charts, the lone returner from that group being Jared Crick.
Four out of your five top tacklers from last year…gone.
This isn't an issue where you hope the offense will be better. It has to be, because while I am quite certain the defense will be good, do you honestly expect that with all those losses they had on defense, they will be just as good or even better than they were a year ago?
If you do, you can stop reading this and start printing your 2010 national championship shirts right now, because your optimism knows no bounds.
But back to the offense, the argument that they will be better usually starts with the reality, much of that forcefully engrained into your head from reading stats like those above, they can't get markedly worse. They have almost all of the offensive line coming back along with a backfield which features Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead, potentially the best tandem in the league.
Think about the fact that Nebraska almost abandoned the passing game. Think about the fact that it would seem the offensive line was dealing with one bout after another of injuries. Think about the fact that until Burkhead came back from his broken foot and started getting some real carries against Colorado, the regular-season finale, it was Helu, dinged up from Missouri up to Oklahoma and then a supporting cast.
And Helu still got over 1,100 yards on the ground.
This image of Roy Helu Jr. fumbling against Iowa State was just one
of many examples of the offense being the offense's biggest enemy
at times last year.
People who follow programs not like Nebraska, rejoice with the thousand-yard back. We look at it with the reality that, yeah, that's nice, but that probably won't even get you into the top 15 all-time for single-season yards at NU.
It doesn't. I looked it up. It gets him 16th all-time at Nebraska, right behind Dan Alexander.
But the two do have something in common aside from their similar positioning on the all-time single-season lists. They both ran for offenses which weren't respected for their ability to throw. Teams that faced Nebraska in the option days, however, probably feared the pass more than they would have last year, partly because at that point Dan Alexander was here, running was still the identity, whereas last year it was the unfortunate, but necessary offensive shift which was made to make up for a passing game that had become almost moot.
But Zac was injured
Yes, I know
The offensive line was its own worst enemy with just a ton of drive-killing penalties.
Yep, I remember that too.
Niles Paul was the only receiver anyone had to cover.
Can't argue there
This year will be different
Ah, there's the rub. There is the mindset which I have affectionately referred to as "Cubs Syndrome."
You can probably figure out where I am going with that.
In the face of the obvious, some of it painfully so, there is still this belief that Nebraska's offensive identity, whatever it is, will come back in roaring fashion.
The biggest reason for that stems from the experience on the offensive line, though, depth and experience at tackle still isn't all that great. Junior college transfer Jermarcus Hardrick is expected to be the starter this Fall, and he hasn't taken a snap for the Huskers in a game. He wasn't even available for the Spring game due to a broken hand. Backing him up is expected to be redshirt freshman Jeremiah Sirles. But outside of center Jacob Hickman, this group brings a load of actual game reps back for the 2010 campaign.
This offensive line (Keith Williams pictured) may not be getting much
credit now. But they could be getting a lot down the road. Their first
big test may be on the road when they head west to face Washington.
The second reason is Brandon Kinnie, because defenses will have to cover someone other than Paul, who should be in store for one heck of a season. And that's not speculation so much as it is going off what he's already done. He saved Nebraska's bacon against the Tigers, showing unbelievable hands in the midst of even more unbelievable weather as many now refer to that as the monsoon at Missouri. Paul has proven it. He's done it. Yeah, he's had his own mental miscues, the unforced error against Iowa State perhaps being the one he might want to take back the most. But let's face it, anyone who watched that game knows that what he did was simply a microcosm of what Nebraska's offense went through that day.
And that brings me to the other thing, probably the biggest factor in all of this. More than Zac Lee, more than Roy Helu, more than Paul himself. Perhaps more than the help they do or don't get from their own defense. It's that habit of mental meltdowns that cost them Virginia Tech to be sure, but Iowa State was one of the most resounding examples of a lack of discipline with your responsibilities that you are likely to see.
Eight turnovers by the offense.
Five fumbles, three interceptions and the result was one of the most humiliating losses in Lincoln since…
Let me get back to you on that one.
It was a game that until the clock went to zero, I still thought Nebraska would win. I really did. This was Iowa State, after all. Nebraska's offense didn't need to be great. It just needed for one single drive in that fourth quarter to stop killing itself.
You can pass it off as serendipity with a huge helping of Murphy's Law thrown in. But it happened. And that's my worry about this offense this time around.
I'm going to make a confession. Well, a few, actually. They are those I have told nobody about how I feel about this offense, and most think I am down on them to the point that people believe my opinion is that Nebraska has better chances scoring points with their defensive tackles than they do their wideouts.
That's not true. It might have been last year at some point. But not this year.
I am of the firm belief that this offensive line can finally say with confidence that if there is a first and goal from the two-yard line, they will make it more often than not. Why? Because they know how it feels when you don't. I am equally sure that the road won't be yet another time for an example of what not to do, because a year's worth of doing it leaves a bad taste. How do you play like you are healthy when you know that you are never really going to be in this sport we call football? Ask Helu. He knows full well now.
And on paper, this team has potential.
I have no doubt they have a good offensive line. They will have players coming up like Brent Qvale, who would have played last year if not for an injury as well as Jermarcus Hardrick who I also feel should be just what the doctor ordered on that left side. And then throw in Mike Caputo at center, who should actually remind Husker fans of days not so long ago when they as fans pumped their chest out with pride when talking about their offensive line, which despite the fact that it didn't hit prototypical parameters according to experts, still blocked everyone into the dirt.
And I think the backfield isn't just going to be good, but deep. They have talent, size and experience. Short yardage, gamebreakers – I think they might have close to everything they need.
I also think that Brandon Kinnie fills the bill, because here is a guy who is physically tough, but mentally goes out and gets the football, whether it's coming back to help his quarterback or trying to get an extra yard. He fights, because that's what he does.
And as for Lee, I saw enough of the Spring from the other candidates to know in my own mind that Lee is the guy. While I don't give the games against the Sun Belt Conference much validity in determining ability, it shows that he can hit a deep throw, that he can hit that crossing route on time.
Lee will have to throw the ball better this year, end of story. But to
make this offense really something to contend with, he'll have to get
equally better at running the ball outside the hashes.
I still don't think that zone read is for him though. While it may not be the option we were used to seeing, it's still the option. And part of the secret to its success was the quarterback's ability to sell that pitch to the defender. You have to make them guess. Lee is so deliberate with that decision-making process when he's running parallel to the line, defenders don't have to guess about much of anything. But he can run off tackle well enough, and we have seen that he can take a licking like he did against Missouri, and he still gets up.
But his progress, in my mind, will come from much of what you might sense as my theme for why I think this offense will be better – much better than last year.
They had an entire year of hearing how much they weren't.
Yes, after all my blustering about fandom and how it seems to cling to intangibles for hope in the face of apparent hopelessness, I'm going with the intangible that despite each player standing firm with their idea that winning is the most important thing, they would like to feel they were a part of it rather than what the rest of the team had to overcome to make it happen.
That along with health and maybe a break here and there, will go a long way into making last year's offense barely a shadow of the potentially stellar one we see this year.
But until I actually see it happen, it's awfully hard not to worry that it won't.