Wednesday notebook: Balance is key for NU offense
After a full season of complaints about Nebraska throwing the ball too much and not committing to a power running game in 2015, Saturday’s season opener brought on some criticism from the complete opposite end of the spectrum.
The Huskers ran the ball on 51 of their 64 plays for 292 yards and five touchdowns in a 43-10 victory, but after the game there was some grumbling about the offense not better utilizing its slew of passing game weapons, especially with a fourth-year starting quarterback at the helm.
Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf has definitely heard his share of reaction over the game plan. He chalked up a big part to the lack of passing to overall miscommunication all game between Armstrong and the receivers.
Maybe more importantly, the success NU was having on the ground made it a lot easier to decide not to force anything through the air.
“It was kind of a combination of a lot of things,” Langsdorf said. “The other thing was I don’t think we really needed (to pass) all that badly at the time… It was a funny game that way, because it’s a situation where we were running so well that we just kept running it and it was working, so we stayed with it.”
That being said, Langsdorf stressed that the offense would have to be far more balanced if it were going to compete for a Big Ten championship this season.
Nebraska ran the ball on about 80 percent of its plays vs. Fresno State, and Langsdorf said ideally he’d want closer to a 60/40 split of runs and passes.
“I don’t want to put an exact number on it because it changes by game,” Langsdorf said. “You’re going to play against tougher run defenses, which is going to make it tougher on you. I think balance is key. We said that since Day One, that balance is a good thing…
“I don’t want to sound negative about running the ball well. I think the focus for us was just needing to throw the ball a little better… We feel like to win our conference we’re going to have to be a better passing team and have that balance. Still have success running the ball, but be able to do both.”
- Robin Washut
Communication a priority with Gerry's return
Nebraska will add a major piece to its defense on Saturday with the return of senior safety and team captain Nate Gerry, who sat out of the Fresno State game with a suspension.
But even though the Huskers return one of their most productive secondary players in recent memory, defensive coordinator Mark Banker said it would still be a bit of a transition for Gerry against Wyoming.
Banker noted that because of last week’s suspension and having been ejected from the previous two games to end last season for targeting, Gerry hadn’t played a full four quarters since NU’s win over Rutgers on Nov. 14, 2015.
“He’ll know what to do, how to do it, but we’ll have to see that,” Banker said of Gerry. “He’s going to have to sharpen up his tools a little bit."
Maybe the biggest key for Gerry will be resuming his role as the vocal leader in the secondary on game day.
In his absence, Banker praised the job done by fellow safeties Aaron and Kieron Williams in that regard vs. Fresno State, but the hope is Gerry will once again establish himself as one of the primary voices of the defense going forward.
“It’ll be good, as long as he continues to communicate correctly,” Banker said. “To me, a noisy defense is a very good defense. If your defense will continue to talk and chatter before the play, during the play, you’ve got a chance.”
Gerry said it was “awful” only being able to watch last week’s game from the sidelines, but he did his best to stay as involved as possible. The best way he could make an impact was to talk with Aaron and Kieron Williams and the rest of NU’s safeties as much as possible.
“About every possession,” Gerry said when asked how much talking he did with his teammates during the game. “I talked to them a lot throughout the week, but they knew that I had confidence in them and they had confidence in me, so we just kind of listened to each other.”
- Robin Washut
Reloaded linebackers impressed in opener
Compared to where it was going into last year’s season opener, Nebraska’s linebacker situation seemed like a completely different unit in Saturday’s win over Fresno State.
Once regarded as the biggest question mark on the defense in 2015 because of extremely limited proven depth, the linebackers entered this season as one of the deepest units on the entire team.
That description held true for linebackers coach Trent Bray on Saturday night, as his group showed a night-and-day difference in its overall understanding and execution of the defense.
“It’s easy, they know,” Bray said. “When they come off the field, it’s ‘Yeah, I should have done this.’ Last year it would have been like, ‘What?’ Now we can talk and they understand when they made a mistake and when they did things right, so the corrections on the sidelines are easier to make.”
In all, six different linebackers saw the field and combined for 16 total tackles and two quarterback hurries against the Bulldogs.
Along with base defense starters Josh Banderas, Marcus Newby, and Dedrick Young, others like Michael Rose-Ivey, Chris Weber, and Luke Gifford all saw extensive action in NU’s nickel and dime packages.
That heavy rotation should only continue based on the early results from Week One.
“I think we got six guys in, so that’s good,” Bray said. “(It’s) different packages. Luke helped us out in that dime package before the (targeting) penalty. We try to find ways that guys can help us with their strengths.
“So Luke in the pass game gave us somebody that had been doing a good job in the dime package. Marcus’s physicality, especially this week. So the more (linebackers) we can play the fresher we are and the better we are.”
- Robin Washut
Defensive line mindset: 'The New World Order'
It’s no secret that new defensive line coach John Parrella has brought a new energy and intensity to his group since taking over at Nebraska this spring.
In fact, it turns out his influence is giving the front four a bit of a professional wrestling mentality.
According to redshirt freshman defensive end DaiShon Neal, the mantra for the d-line this year is establishing a “New World Order” up front, a reference to the popular WWE group led by former wrestling star Hulk Hogan.
The new mentality is meant for the defensive line to help prove all of Nebraska’s doubters wrong.
“Coach Parrella told us we weren’t ranked and we can understand that based on how last season went,” Neal said. “But with the New World Order we’ve got now, we don’t really worry about it. We are gonna get better everyday. Eventually they will see the difference in our d-line.
“That’s our mindset: bring the New World Order. We are a new d-line, way better than what we were last year. We are all about the brotherhood, so we are very aggressive and do our part.”
- Robin Washut
***Langsdorf was asked if he's heard from fans how much people love running the ball in Nebraska. "Yes they do," he said. "It's a huge thing, in our tradition and the history of the program, very important, and it's important to us."
***Wide receiver Brandon Reilly said he was obviously very excited about making his season debut this week after sitting out Saturday due to suspension. He joked that he actually picked a pretty good game to have to miss, all things considered.
***With Reilly back in the fold, Langsdorf said it would give the passing game one of its top weapons back and also take some of the load off guys like Alonzo Moore and Stanley Morgan. With Reilly out, Moore and Morgan had to prepare to play two different receiver positions vs. Fresno State.
***Langsdorf said it’s still a learning process with De’Mornay Pierson-El as far as getting back to becoming a focal point in the offense. He said the depth at receiver already makes it tough for anyone to get snaps, but added that Pierson-El was still getting back into the rhythm of the offense and game plan.
***Jordan Westerkamp said he knew all last week that he would be the primary punt returner, but he’s not sure what the plan will be this week. Because Fresno State’s punter was so bad, he said it was almost even more difficult to return punts than it would normally be against a traditional punter.
***Westerkamp said he had no idea about keeping his 27-game catch streak alive until after his caught his lone pass late in the fourth quarter. However, Reilly said everyone else was well aware of it, and the play call to get him that catch was by design.
***Wide receivers coach Keith Williams declined interviews after Wednesday’s practice.
***Offensive tackle Nick Gates said the biggest strength for the offensive line on Saturday was how good the communication was within the unit on the field. He said you never would have known that there were three new starters up front.
***Freshman running back Tre Bryant admitted he was pretty nervous going into his first game as a Husker, but once he fielded his first kickoff return his nerves calmed down and he settled right in. Bryant said everything is going right according to plan as far as how he pictured is freshman season playing out.