Reading Between Husker Spring Red Lines
Based on this year's upcoming schedule, 2013 won't be a year where fans learn as much about Bo Pelini's Nebraska Cornhuskers just by wins and losses. Eight home games, and only two of four road games will be in front of huge crowds, at Penn State and Michigan, which may be the only game Nebraska goes into as an underdog. With an entire offense back, replacing the entire starting defense, after last year's low-end performances, is about as good a year to go into as any college fan could hope for. However, fans will need to read between the lines to judge where their program stands under Pelini.
So at the start of spring practice, let's take some major event and judge their significance.
An Early Start to Spring Practice: Lingering Disappointment? The only other spring practice of another college program that I can remember starting this early was Texas' spring of 2008. The Longhorns were coming off consecutive three loss seasons in Colt McCoy's first two years, and Brown was fuming after loosing to outgoing Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione. Brown had just plucked Will Muschamp out of Auburn and couldn't wait to start amping up the physicality with a young defense. (Increased physicality was a sentiments that Jon Papuchis echoed in a pre-spring media session.) The result was the brink of a BCS Title Game appearance.
While he hasn't said as much, the early start could be a sign that Pelini still tastes the bitterness of losing another conference title game and is eager to get back on the field again. Also, Pelini may want to give his players more time to rest before the start of fall camp. Early in the season last year, I felt that Pelini didn't hit as much in practice as he did in 2011 because he was concerned about the number of injuries and being able to hold up against Big 10 offenses, which have. Last year's Nebraska didn't have as many defensive injuries. Best to get hitting done early in the spring.
Opening Practice to the Media: Very Surprising. Most college coaches would invent a mini-jail if someone not on their staff filmed practice, and we all know Pelini has a bigger temper than most coaches. Pelini's opening of his initial spring practice of 2013 looks to be a sign that he's a bit more secure in his position and doesn't feel as threatened by reporters. And the Harlem Shake video? Let's see if Pelini's been kidnapped and replaced by an impostor.
Tim Beck saying Offense Needs More Tempo, then Says that They Have to Play a Different Style in Spring to Help their Defense: Mixed Message. Nebraska's offense looked great last year ....when you compared to other Big 10 offenses that actually huddled. If you watched Nebraska's offense compared to Oklahoma or Oregon's, Nebraska's offense looked merely semi-progressive. The Huskers have to move from just beating above-average defenses to blowing them out of the water, and Beck's goal of a play every 13 to 18 seconds is the way to do that. (Against Iowa on their first drive, Nebraska ran a play every 30 seconds.) The good part is that after some success, they aren't satisfied, and shouldn't be.
But then Beck came out after a practice this past week and said that they were at times running a regular offense during the spring to help their defense. Don't worry about your own defense and go all in on offense. Right now, Nebraska's the only team that is running a hurry-up attack in the Big 10, and if they can just improve by a touchdown a game, they wouldn't need to improve on defense. Nebraska averaged just over 29 points in its nine Big 10 games last year. If they average 36 points a game, they should blow out everyone except Michigan.
The Business-As-Usual Attitude: An Osborne Influence, but a Good One? Ciante Evans, David Santos, and Zaire Anderson are saying that they're taking the leadership mantle from Will Compton. Compton was the closest thing that Nebraska's defense had to a leader last year. It sounds like continuity, but is complete continuity the best thing for Nebraska?
This is the rhetoric Osborne cultivated in his tenure: The next guy steps up. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Make small tweaks in your plan year-to-year, don't throw out the playbook because of one bad (or utterly horrific) game. In a way, this is the kind of speak that Nebraska's fans have longed for. A team that has been completely recruited by the current coach, replacing the other players who that coach taught first, and teaching the ones who will come after them. And for all its faults, Nebraska's defense was very good on a number of occasions, even if the best starting quarterback they beat was Kain Colter, in what was in essence a neutral-site game.
But when Nebraska's defense failed last year, it failed miserably, and most of Nebraska's opponents lacked the talent to exploit their deficiencies. So why aren't these players' saying “We can't have bad games like we had last year. We can't let one bad play lead to two or three bad plays”? Again, panic isn't necessary, but if there had been a safety or a linebacker who could wrap up and keep a seven yard gain from being a fifty yard touchdown, the Big 10 Title Game could have turned out differently. There needs to be more concern, some of which Pelini finally expressed Saturday.
Pelini Channeling his inner Phil Jackson: Right Move, Wrong Time? After hearing him level his defense after Saturday's practice, I wonder why Pelini didn't use the media to send messages to his players last year, when he had seniors who needed some motivation and could take criticism. Now, he has young players who are stepping into a suspect system after last year's blowout losses, and he scuttles them after a bad practice? Maybe the tough love is deserved, but just because it would have been what fans and media wanted to hear after last year's losses doesn't necessarily mean that it's the right thing now. Perhaps the by-product of extra physical practices and playing fast (which Pelini told ESPN.com he wanted his players to do) meant certain players played themselves out of positions, but young players need encouragement. Whether it was good or bad, Pelini's got several months and many practices to correct it.
Final Verdict: This Won't be an Off-Season like 2002. That year, the largest black cloud hung over Nebraska football that has ever hung over a team in the off-season, other than perhaps 2004. The flaws that Eric Crouch hid were emerging, although no one wanted to talk about it. This team looks like it wants to be on the field practicing and getting better, but it's debatable if they know how much better they can get.
As I said at the top, all we are doing now is reading between the lines, and there are a lot of lines to read between.
Derek Johnson is a Seward Nebraska native who works for his family's organic farm seed company, Blue River Hybrids, and is a freelance writer and commission photographer. He has been a contributor to HuskerMax since 2013, and is a former contributor to the website Husker Locker. Visit his blog, derekjohnsonmuses.com, and follow him on twitter @derekjohnson05 for regular updates.