Adventures in Offense 2013: Nebraska

Quarterback Taylor Martinez. - Gregory Shamus

2012 Quick Stats

Passing Offense: 5th in Big Ten, 91st Nationally
Rushing Offense: 1st in Big Ten, 8th Nationally
Scoring Offense: 2nd in Big Ten, 28th Nationally
Total Offense: 1st in Big Ten, 26th Nationally

3rd Down Conversions: 43.15% (85 out of 197 attempts)
4th Down Conversions: 63.64% (7 out of 11 attempts)
Red Zone Conversions: 85.48% (53 out of 62 attempts)
Total Points: 487 (61 TD, 20 FG, 59 extra point, 0 two-point)
Average points per game: 34.8

2012 Record: 10-4 (7-2 in Big Ten)
Record vs. Michigan: 3-4-1
Head Coach Bo Pelini: 49-20 at Nebraska and overall

What's up with the offense?

Much like the ones for Northwestern and Penn State, this offensive preview is probably going to bore you to tears because Nebraska's offense was really good and they aren't making any significant changes. At least, no changes in terms of offensive system, scheme, or staff. The Cornhuskers were one of the most efficient teams in the conference offensively. They were the best rushing offense and the best total offense, with Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead combining for 1,694 yards on the ground.

Couple that with the fact that Nebraska's passing rank in the Big Ten went from 10th to 5th from 2011 to 2012 and it's not hard to see why they were more effective last season. The passing game stopped being a weakness and, while not quite good enough to be considered a "strength," it was decent enough to get the job done. Here's a quote from Opposing Views on Taylor Martinez that pretty much sums it up:

I think the single biggest factor in Nebraska’s points per game increase last season was the sudden emergence of Taylor Martinez as a competent quarterback. ... This emergence helped take a lot of pressure off an often banged up rushing corps, and lead to a more open offensive game plan. Not only did Martinez increase his yards by nearly 800 for the season, he also increased his completion percentage by six points. All of this had a big factor in why Nebraska’s point average increased from 2011 to 2012.

While the Cornhuskers were second in average points per game, they scored more points overall (487) than anyone else in the conference. They had more yards rushing than anyone else in the Big Ten, too. So what do you say about an offense that was good last season and has no slated changes in offensive staff or philosophy?

The good news for the Huskers is that Martinez and a whole load of offensive starters are back. The bad news is that Rex Burkhead, the fullback disguised as a running back, is not. However, how big of a loss is Burkhead really when his backup, Ameer Abdullah, rushed for more than 1,000 yards? Nebraska's ground game should be fine, and with Burkhead gone we won't feel conflicted about fullbacks lining up as running backs.

What more is there to say? I guess we'll always have this, Martinez's unorthodox (to use a polite term) throwing motion:

And I'll leave you with this quote from 247Sports that pretty much sums up how worried everyone is about Nebraska's offense (i.e. not really):

For much of last year, the Nebraska offense was fun to watch with Martinez running and distributing the ball to Abdullah in the backfield and Bell and Enunwa downfield. Martinez is back for his fourth year as the starter and figures to set a career-high in pass attempts this year.

But, truly, offense is the least of [Nebraska] coach Bo Pelini’s problems.

Okay, one last note. If there is one area where Nebraska's offense needs to improve, it's in the turnover margin. The Cornhusker offense coughed up the ball more times (22 fumbles) than anyone else in the Big Ten, leading to an overall turnover margin of -12, which is tied with Illinois. Uh, that's not good, you guys. I guess it's fair to say that Nebraska fits the bill of your classic "High Risk, High Reward" type offense. They scored more points than anyone, while simultaneously giving it away nearly as often.

Key Players

I suppose I could make some "take a wild guess" jokes on who the starting quarterback is going to be, but I'm trying to write this as quickly as possible before my boss notices, so I won't. Taylor Martinez is a bona fide senior quarterback returning for his final year as a Nebraska Cornhusker. It feels like the end of an era, except that it isn't; there's some young talent to take his place when he departs, but more on that in a sec.

Martinez made serious strides as a passer in 2012. He upped his completion percentage from 56.3% (2011) to 62% (2012), and he had roughly 800 more passing yards (2871 vs. 2089) and ten more passing touchdowns (23 vs. 13). He also threw 12 interceptions (he threw 8 in 2011), so let's go easy on the "T-Magic is an Elite QB" talk just yet. Still, when a QB has nearly a little over a hundred more attempts (368 vs. 288) and only throws four additional picks to the previous year's 8, that's not terrible. Granted, with quarterbacks you want zero interceptions, but when it comes to Taylor Martinez the fans have always had to take what they could get.

Of course, where Martinez is a bigger threat is as a runner. He was the team's second-leading rusher in 2012 with 1,019 yards on the ground and was a true staple for Pelini and Tim Beck's spread offense. He was especially effective running in the redzone and scored more rushing TDs (10) than anyone else on the team.

So, who's the backup? That's a good question. Incoming freshman Johnny Stanton looks like Taylor Martinez 2.0, but is actually more refined as a passer and has much more recruiting accolades coming in than Martinez did. (Stanton also has the moniker "Johnny Tebow" because he resembles Tim Tebow running the ball, which should tell you something about his dual-threat ability.) Frankly I'd be shocked if Stanton didn't assume the starting job after Martinez graduates. He's young, skilled, and seems perfect for the offense. Don't be surprised if he takes some snaps either out of necessity or so he can be groomed for the starting job next season.

Of course there are guys like Ron Kellogg III and Tommy Armstrong. Kellogg looked good enough in the spring game to at least be a serviceable backup in the event Martinez needs it. Given the fact that he's a senior, Kellogg looks primarily like Pelini's best chance to keep a redshirt on Stanton until 2014. Armstrong, meanwhile, is a redshirt freshman, but he doesn't have near the potential or upside that Stanton does. He has some support among the Nebraska fanbase, but no one has really seen anything from him and at this point he looks like an afterthought at best.

Even though he looks like a wide receiver playing running back, junior Ameer Abdullah led the team in rushing yards (1,137) as Burkhead battled injury throughout the year. Although Abdullah appeared most effective on trick plays like end-arounds and draws, with Burkhead gone he's the most experienced running back on the roster and thus is most likely to be named the starter. Some might be worried that Abdullah won't be able to handle carrying the ball 25-30 times a game, but the truth is that given Abdullah's skill set Pelini is more likely going to have a mix at tailback.

Part of that mix will come from Abdullah, the rest will come from either King Frazier or Imani Cross. Both guys have the beef (Frazier is 6'0", 220 lbs.; Cross is 6'1", 225 lbs.) to fill Burkhead's role, and both have shown situational flashes. Cross averaged 5.85 yards on his 55 carries for 324 total rushing yards in 2012, but Frazier stood out more in the spring game. Here's a bit from Nebraska blog Corn Nation on Frazier in April:

A name that rocketed around Memorial Stadium, Frazier didn't disappoint. With Ameer Abdullah out and everyone aware that Imani Cross snacks on discarded shipyard chains, Frazier's 64-yard performance put newbies Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor on notice. He may not be high on the depth chart this August, but they're going to have to earn their spot in front of him.

The "newbies" he's speaking of are incoming freshmen Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor, who each seemed almost specifically recruited to replace touted running backs Aaron Green and Braylon Heard, who both transferred out of Nebraska last year.

The Cornhuskers' best receiving options return in junior Kenny Bell (50 receptions, 863 yards, 8 TDs), senior Quincy Enunwa (42 receptions, 470 yards), and junior Jamal Turner (32 receptions, 417 yards, 3 TDs). Not surprisingly, Ameer Abdullah also helped out at receiver, and there is also returning tight end Jake Long (not that Jake Long), who is expected to break out.

There isn't too much written about Nebraska's offensive line, but unless some generous Nebraska fan tells me otherwise, my general feeling on the unit is decidedly "meh." The Cornhusker line gave up 31 sacks in 2012, tying them for 2nd most in the conference with Wisconsin, so that's a concern. But you can't look at the offensive line with total scorn when they helped produce the best rushing attack in the Big Ten, though one could argue that Nebraska's biggest plays rushing were when they got Martinez or Abdullah in open space (as opposed to between the tackles). Regardless, the offense returns three starters on the O-line: right guard Spencer Long, left tackle Brent Qvale, and right tackle Jeremiah Sirles. So it's a decent bet that they should be about the same as what they were last year.

Conclusion

Much like Michigan, Nebraska is hinging a lot of their hopes on their dual-threat quarterback and doesn't have an excessively proven running game. They have some experience at the position and can probably name a starter, but they'll be hoping for some help from a few inexperienced players. The interior of their offensive line is pretty much being rebuilt. Where they differ from the Maize and Blue, however, is largely in their receiving corps. Abdullah provides a threat both rushing and receiving, and Kenny Bell is a proven commodity. With Martinez steadily improving and looking to have his best season as a senior, it's not hard to see why some Nebraska fans think the Huskers have an easy shot at the Legends Division crown.

Of course, we're just talking about the offense here. While that side of the ball returns 8 starters, the defense returns significantly less and needs a ton of work. However, being that this is an offensive preview, we have to limit our analysis to what the Cornhuskers will be able to do when they have the ball, not when they don't. And Nebraska should be pretty good. Martinez might not be an elite passer (two years ago, asking him to be one seemed like a pipe dream), but he can get the job done, and frankly, with Nebraska's potential rushing attack, that should be enough. Nearly everyone who contributed to the Huskers' scoring threats returns, and that makes them mighty dangerous.

Grade: A-/A

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