LINCOLN — The plan is always tidy before the opening snap. Think chunks of yards, not clouds of dust. Think Randall Cunningham, gliding around the edge of an unsuspecting defense in his rearview mirror, more than Cam Newton willingly going into the teeth of tacklers.
This side of service academies, everybody wants to use their quarterback run game as a side dish — not even that, an accent! — to the meal instead of a main course.
Everybody wants to protect the franchise guy. Everybody knows — whether they’ve pored over the data or not — that there’s a relationship between a quarterback’s carries per game and turnover rate.
New Nebraska quarterback Jeff Sims — with 31 turnovers in 41 games — knows this. Husker fans know this after seeing years of costly Adrian Martinez, Tommy Armstrong and Taylor Martinez lost fumbles. And new NU coach Matt Rhule knows this. His Carolina Panther QBs fumbled 16 times in 2021. It was one reason why that team finished 5-12. Rhule was fired early into the 2022 season in part because he never caught a break — or, if you prefer, made his own luck — with the QB spot.
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Now he has Sims, whom Big Ten Network analyst Gerry DiNardo said “looks like a big tailback running the ball.” At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, Sims is, indeed, an intimidating runner. Fast. Physical. Long strides, high knees. Not quite Cunningham, but in that ballpark. Given NU’s situation at receiver — Zavier Betts retired, Marcus Washington has an injured hand, Josh Fleeks came in overweight, and the freshmen are freshmen — there’s the temptation to load Sims up with carries.
Rhule will resist the urge.
“The quarterback run game, to me, doesn’t really count as rushing yardage,” Rhule said at Big Ten Media Days. “It’s an outlier. It’s a potentially explosive play. I don’t want to run the quarterback to get three/four yards.”
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“I want to run them when we’re in the red zone,” Rhule said. “I want to run ‘em on third down — so when the result is either continuing a drive or scoring. And I want to run the quarterback when it’s a zone read-type, where we’re hoping to give it but, if he pulls and it’s a big play.
“And then I think a lot of what Jeff will do is, he’s going to drop back and throw it, and then he’s going to put the ball down and run.”
Tidy. Just so. A perfectly-balanced diet. At Temple, Rhule had that, deploying the legs of quarterback P.J. Walker — now with the NFL’s Bears — on a need-to-run basis. Quite often, the Owls just didn’t need Walker to run much. So he didn’t miss a start as a junior or senior, attempting 98.3% of the team’s passes. That’s healthy!
At Baylor, Rhule kept up that trend in 2017, when BU finished 1-11 and averaged 6.1 quarterback carries per game, when adjusted for sacks.
That rate jumped to 10.9 QB rushes per game in 2018 as Baylor finished 7-6.
In 2019, the 11-3 BU team had 11.4 QB carries per game.
Signal caller Charlie Brewer led the team in carries. In Baylor’s win over Texas — perhaps the best victory of Rhule’s tenure in Waco — Brewer toted the ball 18 times for 75 yards. The juice was worth the squeeze until the Big 12 title game, when Baylor lost Brewer and his backup, and had to play with a true freshman third-stringer during most of an overtime loss to Oklahoma. The Bears fell just short of making the College Football Playoff.
Nebraska’s known quarterback pain, too. Knew it in 2013, when a vicious foot injury ended Taylor Martinez’s career. Knew it in 2016, when Armstrong limped through a 40-10 loss to Iowa and missed the bowl game. And Huskers fans knew it every which way during Adrian Martinez’s career.
Of course, the plan was supposed to be tidy then, too. The interview with former NU quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco appears lost to time — I’ve looked! — when he described the way he directed quarterback McKenzie Milton to run smart, get down, etc. Martinez was supposed to be similarly well-used by coaches.
No. 2 ran 15 times in his career-opener against Colorado. A CU defender twisted Martinez’s knee on the 15th carry. He missed the Troy game, a loss. In 2019, he missed 2½ games. In 2021, he missed Senior Day with a separated shoulder. That was during a season when he played with a broken jaw, suffered in a 23-20 loss to Michigan State — when Martinez had 21 carries.
You see how it adds up. The risk. The reward. Balancing the two. Lamar Jackson is probably the best-running quarterback in NFL history. He gets hurt a lot, and his team does not win the playoffs. Josh Allen seems indestructible — but he led the NFL with 19 turnovers.
How Rhule chooses to use Sims will be one of the season’s biggest decisions, divided up into a bunch of smaller decisions. Rhule said he wants to run the ball between the tackles, whether he does so from condensed formations with tight ends or out of a spread formation that empties the defensive box, as Lincoln Riley has for years. Riley was and is never afraid to run his quarterbacks, including Heisman winner Caleb Williams.
But you also know the last chapter of Williams’ 2022 story: He got hurt in the Pac-12 title game and USC lost 47-24 to Utah. Goodbye, CFP berth.
“Stubbornness just means that, at the end of the day, there’s going to be some games where you go out there and run the ball and it’s getting three yards, four yards,” Rhule said. “And I’ve been on those staffs where the coordinator’s like ‘man, we can’t run it today!’ and the O-line coach wants to fight him — ‘aw, we can run it!’ We’re going to keep running it.”
I believe it. Who runs it? How do they run it?
Everybody has a plan until it’s third-and-four in a Big Ten fourth quarter.
On with the Rewind:
Rhule fired his most pointed comment this month at the NCAA, which apparently is dragging its feet on approving a transfer waiver for tight end Arik Gilbert.
“He deserves this,” Rhule said. “Shame on anyone who stands in the way or doesn’t help.”
That fire makes sense for two reasons.
First, Rhule is a player advocate who understands why Gilbert didn’t see an immediate future — or much joy — at Georgia.
Second, a NU team this low on seasoned wideouts can shift the receiving load to talented tight ends — presuming Gilbert is eligible.
Nebraska has little time to ponder what might have been with Betts, who will live life, as 99.9% of us do, not playing college football. The Huskers have to find alternatives. Bill Callahan did in 2004, and he turned to Grant Mulkey, Dusty Keiser and Willie Amos as needed. He also had tight end Matt Herian, who caught 24 passes for 308 yards before breaking his leg in late October that season.
If Callahan had Herian for November, the 2004 team probably beats Iowa State or Colorado and makes a bowl.
This year, Rhule could have — not an exaggeration — two players of Herian’s ability. Gilbert, a former five-star prospect, is one of them. He’s 6-5, 275. Thomas Fidone is 6-6, 250. Starter Nate Boerkircher — 6-5, 230 — is a strong option up the seam. If Gilbert gets the waiver, Nebraska has one of the Big Ten’s best group of tight ends.
All three players stand a better chance of excelling this season in the Big Ten than seven freshman receivers. Jaidyn Doss came in as the most polished guy — physically developed, too — and he’ll get a look, as will (almost out of necessity) Malachi Coleman, who if he’s laser-focused could be a completely different receiver in one year’s time. He may need a year at this level — even the Ohio State stars did.
Defense is ahead of offense
The defense is ahead of the offense. Well, defenses usually are. It needs to be ahead of Minnesota's offense on Aug. 31.
“Early games is tackling and special teams, right? No mistakes,” defensive coordinator Tony White said. “No blown coverages, no big plays, poor tackling, mistakes on the special teams.”
Most defenses are volatile. Good games, bad games. Escape rooms, in you will. A few opponents will solve White’s system, a few won’t, and the rest will win or lose based on execution.
AP top 25
The Associated Press Top 25 poll comes out Monday. Nebraska won’t be in it.
The Huskers haven’t appeared in the poll since the 2019 season, when the AP deemed them the No. 24 preseason team. Once Nebraska lost to Colorado in week 2 — blowing a 17-0 halftime lead — the team hasn’t made another AP Top 25.
Every other Big Ten West team has. Iowa peaked at No. 2 in 2021. Wisconsin peaked at No. 6 in 2019, followed by Minnesota (No. 7 in 2019), Northwestern (No. 10 in 2020), Illinois (No. 14 in 2022) and Purdue (No. 25 in 2021). Among Big Ten teams, only Rutgers hasn’t been ranked since Sept. 7, 2019.
A small thought, presented once at the beginning of the Rhule era: The new single-digit jersey vote strikes me as elaborate, in part because it elevates the single-digit jersey to something it’s never been in the history of Husker football.
When one thinks of Husker jersey numbers, Nos. 7, 12, 15 18, 20, 27, 30, 34, 50, 75, 89, 93, 97 and 98 come to my mind because of names who wore them. I’ll bet they do for you, too, since you can pretty quickly match the names to the jersey.