Nebraska fans always turn out strong for the spring game. The Cornhuskers are the pride of the state, the ultimate example of the regional mascot that college football offers outside of major population hubs. Even in 2017, when Mike Riley was entering a hot seat season and counting on Bob Diaco to turn the defense around, the Huskers had just under 80,000 fans in attendance.
But in 2018, with all the excitement stemming from Scott Frost’s hire, Nebraska set a school record with 86,618 in the seats.
They were rewarded with an exciting afternoon in which the Huskers showed a lot of competency in Frost’s up-tempo offense (and a sound approach on defense as well). Here were a few of the plays that have Cornhuskers faithful buzzing that the glory days of the ‘90s could be coming back to Lincoln.
Play 1: RPOs involving the TE
This one’s a short gainer, but still a good example:
The Huskers ran this a ton in their spring game. Even in the spread offense, teams that have good TEs must often use them as blockers to account for the sixth defender the OL can’t block. Frost likes to run the option, though, and do what he can to space out and isolate defenders.
The Nebraska D has a seventh man in the box here and is playing Cover 3, but the TE release route nullifies the OLB, who’s either chasing the TE on the route or staying home to stop the run. In either event, the QB can make him wrong. Nebraska has a solid collection of tight ends because they were also an important part of Riley’s offense, and now guys like Jack Stoll are ready to be unleashed.
Nebraska ran a ton of variations of inside zone that would force the OLBs to choose between covering an easy quick route or staying in the cutback lane. When the defense would rotate to stop either, the RBs could find downhill lanes toward safeties who were trying to fill the original creases:
Here, the TE is helping to block the right edge and create extra gaps. Everyone associates Frost’s offense with the spread, but it has a lot of ways for a TE to make himself useful.
Play 2: The power-read give to Tyjon Lindsey
Riley also had an affinity for short, explosive receivers like Oregon State star Brandin Cooks, so he stockpiled a number of them on Nebraska’s roster. Lindsey is a 5’9, 160-pound former four-star from powerhouse Las Vegas HS Bishop Gorman. The sophomore is suited for the RB/WR hybrid role that De’Anthony Thomas played for Frost at Oregon or that multiple backs played at the coach’s UCF a year ago.
There are a lot of exciting playmakers on this offense, young and old, who are going to be shockingly easy for Frost to plug into his spread-option attack.
Play 3: This triple-option TD by freshman QB Adrian Martinez
There’s a lot here to excite a Nebraska fan. The Huskers are running the classic triple option with a freshman QB, it goes for a TD, and if this were a live game, there’s a chance that the safety would actually make the stop short of the goal line to preserve some dignity for the “Blackshirt” defense.
“I’ve rooted for option teams my whole life because of my background [as a Nebraska option QB],” Frost has said. “If we’re not playing Navy, I’m rooting for ’em, and Air Force and Georgia Tech. There’s a beauty to that offense that I respect and admire.”
The design here is pretty lethal:
The right tackle is releasing up the field, and the QB reads the B-gap defender to determine whether to give the ball or keep it. On the keeper, he has Lindsey outside as a pitch option, but Martinez is clearly pretty fast.
At Nebraska’s peak, its star athletes from hotbeds like California ran outside option plays, so watching Frost’s team do exactly that surely sparks some trips down memory lane.
Martinez might only be a freshman, but his main competition is coming from second-year players. He has elite running ability and more than enough arm to be effective in Frost’s offense. The smart money is on Martinez to win the job before the season is over, if not before it begins.
This offseason, Nebraska made several moves by signing some JUCO players like prospective starting ILB Will Honas and adding Ole Miss transfer Breon Dixon to potentially play the position Shaquem Griffin manned at UCF. The team had already been moving towards a 3-4 defense a year ago under Diaco and returns its starting line on that side, plus four starters on the offensive line.
There’s surprisingly much talent and structure in place for Frost to build on, and Martinez seems the kind of special talent who’s worth risking a sluggish 2018 on, much like freshman Milton McKenzie during UCF’s 6-7 2016. Frost’s already found himself having to dial down the buzz.
After the game, Coach Frost attempted to throttle down the Adrian Martinez hype machine. When asked about Adrian Martinez’s performance in the spring game Coach Frost said, “I told the quarterbacks before the game to just go play. We aren’t going to decide who is the starting quarterback is today. In a game like that you might be the guy that is in there when the right play is called or the right guy gets open. And you might be the guy that is in there when somebody misses a protection and you get sacked. And quarterbacks can look good or bad through no fault of their own.”
There’s still a way to go before anybody’s talking another 12-0 season for Frost. Along the way, we’ll start to see the full Frost offense — built around mobile linemen, tons of packaged plays, and getting just about everybody on the roster involved — in live action. Nebraska fans are pumped, and while the rest of the Big Ten probably isn’t “running scared” just yet, they surely are taking notice.