The Mike Riley hire at Nebraska made a certain degree of sense. The common perception is that the Cornhuskes oversteered away from the brash Bo Pelini and hired the nicest man in coaching. My take at the time was that Riley actually brought a skill set to the job that fit the needs of present day Nebraska, but that he was facing an uphill climb in transforming the design of the offense and fixing the defense.
While there were many calls for Nebraska to hire Ken Niumatalolo and double down on their option roots under Tom Osborne, that would likely have been an abject surrender of ever assuming a place of national contention again. If you look at the defensive S&P+ rankings of the flexbone/triple-option teams of today you’ll find that they virtually never rank amongst the nation’s best in defense. Niumatalolo’s Navy is regularly involved in shootouts in which opponents are befuddled by their option but feast on the Midshipmen defenders.
A move to that brand of triple-option would also have made it very difficult for Nebraska to credibly present itself as a destination for pro-caliber players around the country, which in turn would have damaged their ability to become a title-contending team.
With Riley they had a strong and pro-style strategy based off making steady, positive gains in the run game and working off that with the rest of their offense. Riley also had a history of overseeing a strong walk-on program at Oregon State, an important ingredient to Osborne’s Nebraska, and he was a solid national recruiter that could help Nebraska shore up their own weak recruiting base and regularly pull from California, Florida, and Texas.
However, their run game never did enough damage to carry the offense as intended and instead they were regularly relying on their passing attack to make things happen. On defense they were an absolute mess every season and Riley fired longtime defensive assistant Mark Banker over the phone after a tumultuous year two in which Banker implied that Riley had gone soft at Nebraska with his practice regimen before back tracking his comments after generating a media storm.
But now local hero Scott Frost is returning to Lincoln to revive the program and to essentially bring an updated version of the strategy that Pelini rode to seven consecutive 9-win seasons.
The situation in Nebraska
The two biggest challenges confronting every new offensive coach are instilling his program with the existing OL and QB roster that he finds waiting for him. When Jim Harbaugh took over at Michigan he found an OL that was ostensibly designed to foster a downhill run game but couldn’t and he found a QB roster that was in tatters and which he immediately augmented with transfers Jake Rudock and John O’Korn. Indeed, now he’s also brought in Shea Patterson from the wreckage of Ole Miss. It wasn’t until this year, his third season, in which Harbaugh was able to field the kind of physical Michigan run game because the OL is finally being manned by his own recruits.
Riley’s offensive vision was built largely off inside zone and the man-blocking play “duo,” both of which are designed to secure the point of attack with double teams, erase the possibility of negative plays, and then hopefully generate enough punch to blow open holes for the backs. Instead they regularly took tackles for loss or no-gain runs, never were able to do much in regards to blowing open bigger holes, and instead leaned on Tulane transfer Tanner Lee hitting a well-coached collection of WRs to generate any kind of real gain.
For instance, in their opening drive against Iowa:
A weak side Iso play is stuffed by the Hawkeyes and the Cornhusker OL fails to generate much push or control over the Iowa front. That sets up a third and eight...
...which Nebraska converts with a four-verticals passing play that is requires the WR to make a great play vs man coverage and a punishing hit by the safety.
Riley was always great at teaching a “pro-style” approach to players and chugging along with steady gains on the ground and home runs from the pass but it’s a talent-based approach that struggled because Nebraska lacked the right personnel. You’re not going to line up in a three-point stance and drive Iowa off the ball if you aren’t very good and well seasoned in your approach.
The defense had to buy Riley time to take advantage of the superior talent he was getting into Lincoln (relative to Oregon State) and Bob Diaco predictably wasn’t able to achieve that result. Enter the favorite son, Scott Frost, fresh off an undefeated season at UCF and a AAC title.
The Frost option
Scott Frost isn’t looking to secure the line of scrimmage and generate steady gains between the tackles from double teams, his offense is designed to get speed in space and generate steady gains from the fact that tackling fast people in space before the line of scrimmage is universally difficult. His Central Florida offense this past year took the spread-option in all sorts of new and crazy directions while loosing speedy players in space using mainstay blocking schemes.
Riley had a difficult time stemming from the fact that Nebraska had been recruiting their OL to get quicker, lighter guys that could reach defenders on outside zone. Under Tim Beck (later co-OC at Ohio State, now at Texas) the ‘Huskers relied on an Oregon-esque offense built around zone-read plays with outside zone blocking. Consequently they had OL waiting for Riley that included short, light guys of the sort that Oregon used to thrive with but aren’t as well suited for driving Hawkeyes off the ball.
Frost will benefit from the fact that Riley’s transformation of the Nebraska OL into a mauling unit was largely incomplete. The Cornhuskers still aren’t terribly big on the OL and ended up promoting true freshman Brenden Jaimes to starting right tackle. The a lighter Lake Travis OL (played at 280 this year) and grew up learning to reach block on outside zone in a spread-option offense. Guys like Jaimes are tailor-made for the old Beck offense, or the new Frost system, and next year Nebraska will return all five starters for Frost.
Outside zone was a big part of the UCF offense, although they were very multiple in how they used it. Here’s an inverted outside zone-read play with UCF QB Milton McKenzie serving as the outside zone runner while the RB takes the outside path to the edge that the QB would attack on a traditional read play:
This is a brutal play design for defenders because the zone blocking is telling the LBs to run hard with the flow of the OL but doing so allows the RB to hit a soft weak side edge with speed.
UCF had some power run game concepts but again, they were also designed more for creating conflict for defenders in space than trying to bowl people over in the box.
That’s the “power-shovel” play with the QB attacking the edge rather than a sweeping WR or RB, if he sees a hard edge he can pitch the ball back inside to the RB running a traditional power run. But Frost’s play also includes a hitch option for the QB if he gets loose on the perimeter but finds the flat defender coming up to tackle him. Much of the 2017 UCF offense was made possible because of the quick feet and quick-trigger arms of QB Milton McKenzie. The OL in Lincoln will be a solid fit for Frost but getting by without Milton will be the main challenge faced by Frost early at Nebraska.
Returning starter Tanner Lee is not a Frost-style QB and the Huskers have already been chasing local kid Matt Maskers (as a preferred walk-on):
Even if Lee holds down the fort for one more season, the writing is on the wall for the pocket passers that Riley was assembling in Lincoln. Even for Lee, given that Frost started Milton as a true freshman and was richly rewarded, it’s not unlikely that he’ll happily take some lumps going with a youth movement again in 2018.
Frost is going to bring an interesting brand of X’s and O’s to Nebraska which blend common, everyday schemes with options and QB runs in a way that does hearken back to the balance Tom Osborne struck back in the day. The emphasis on getting the ball to speed in space and relying on strategies that don’t depend on having overwhelming physical talent should allow a program that tends to bring in recruiting classes ranked inside the top 30 but outside the top 10 to have a chance against the premier programs. It should also allow their typical walk-on efforts to produce more contributors than a pro-style or more commonplace scheme would offer.
Nebraska has a unique history with one particular coach and traditional method that generated major results. Scott Frost comes from that tradition but with fresh ideas and connections that have been developed and tested across the nation. This is basically exactly what you want in college football (or human organizations in general), for your coaching legends to produce disciples that can bridge the past between what worked in the old world and what will translate to the new one.
It had to be that way for Nebraska because there was never any regional advantages that Nebraska enjoyed other than benefitting from the enthusiasm of a local population that doesn’t have another mascot in the sports world. If their proven coach didn’t produce a tree with fruit then Nebraska football was unlikely to emerge from the winter frost and blossom again. Now they have their man, we’ll see if spread-option football can revive the glory days of the Osborne era.