Editor's note: Randy York is writing his N-Sider column as a daily Countdown to Big Red Saturday. Upcoming columns are on John Papuchis, baseball's homegrown talent, Taylor Martinez, Bo Pelini and volleyball's Nebraska conversions.
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If you want a progress report on Nebraska's new offensive system, take it straight from the Huskers' fourth-year defensive coordinator: "Our offense is making a solid transformation," Carl Pelini said. "We already have some bread-and-butter stuff we can hang our hat on, and we're getting good."
Getting good? How good?
"Good enough to say that it's a whole different world now to defend our offense in practice," Pelini said. "I think we'll be a better offensive team in the first game than we were. We'll be better right off the bat on offense in my opinion. And then I think we'll just keep getting better and better as the season goes on."
Pelini didn't say it, but several key Husker offensive players insist that the expectation for significant offensive improvement is based on everyone buying into a system that they devoutly believe in - a system that goes beyond having a playbook that can take them in and out of character, depending on the game or the circumstance.
Whatever the new system is in its entirety, Carl Pelini is impressed watching the unveiling in spring practice, and he is amazed how fast the offensive players' confidence is growing week after week.
Martinez Showing Leadership; Receivers Impressive
While Carl insists he's not an expert on why this new offensive system is taking root so fast, he has some pretty good ideas. Among them are:
1) Taylor Martinez, who is healthier, more confident and more comfortable running a no-huddle offense at quarterback - something he practiced often last year, but rarely ran in a game. "Taylor is really starting to come into his own as a leader," Carl Pelini said. "This offense fits him, and he fits this offense. He's communicating, becoming more vocal, and that needs to continue."
2) The offensive line. "They've really picked up the pace from last year," Carl said. "They're big, they're athletic, they're young, and they're really coming off the ball. They have some maulers in there. They're tough for us to handle, and they'll be tough for other teams to handle, too."
3) The receivers. "They're better now than they've been since I've been here," Carl said. "We have depth and playmakers - Brandon Kinnie, Kenny Bell, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Timmy Marlowe, Jamal Turner, Quincy Enunwa ... I don't even know all of them. I just know they all have speed, and some are big-bodied guys with good hands. Our wide receiver position could end up being one of the strengths of our entire football team."
4) Rex Burkhead. "Everyone knows how great Rex is," Pelini said. "He's competitive, team-oriented, a leader. His influence will help those young, high potential backs that will come into the system this fall."
Pelini, of course, was more than willing to share what he sees developing on the offensive unit that lines up across from his defense every day in practice, especially since the accelerated development will do nothing but make his Blackshirts better this fall.
Defense's No. 1 Goal: Becoming More Multiple
The defense, of course, also seeks improvement, and Carl Pelini is seeing definitive progress there as well.
"In the last two years we've been very good at executing what we have on defense," Carl said. "The first year was a year of building our system, and that paid dividends for us in the second and third years. We had a lot of smart guys who understood our system, and we executed really well. They were very comfortable in our base defenses, and we still are. But the goal for this off-season was to be become more multiple."
Multiple is a word you think you know, but aren't really sure. So you ask "Coach Carl" to be more descriptive.
"If we're going to be that good in our base defense, then we need to have more bullits in the gun," he explained. "We will always continue to play our base defense, but we need to have that threat of movement - the ability to blitz and the threat to become more multiple by using our speed and our athleticism."
Heading into the spring, "becoming more multiple" was Carl Pelini's No. 1 goal.
"We've made strides in that direction," he said. "Our guys are getting more and more confident every day adding in some of those bullets. You know it's a little tricky and a fine line that you walk when you do that. You don't want to sacrifice your base because you would rather work your base stuff all the time, if you can."
Any Offense Has to Honor the Threat of a Blitz
Still, when Nebraska's defensive staff has forced itself to make time this spring to work on becoming more multiple, it's helped sharpen the focus and should create an advantage.
Any time a defense can give an offense different looks, different movement and breathe down everyone's necks with the threat of a blitz, there are benefits. "Just having the threat of a blitz makes an offense honor that threat, and it makes your base defense even more effective," Carl said.
Communication and collaboration are critical keys to becoming more multiple.
At Nebraska, communication begins with John Papuchis in the press box. "He identifies the offensive personnel and makes us aware of how many backs and how many receivers are in," Carl said. "It's not easy to do. There's a lot of stress on J.P. on game day because our calls are based on what he communicates."
Once personnel are identified, Bo and Carl Pelini collaborate on the defensive call while analyzing the play from the field. "Everybody's involved," Carl said. "We see the point of attack, but Corey (Raymond) is upstairs looking at our secondary, J.P. is looking at the front and Ross (Els) is looking at the linebacker play."
As each offensive series continues, the coaches upstairs are taking constant notes, so when the defense comes off the field, communication unfolds rapidly. The coaches ask and answer their own questions - What did they do? What was the play? What was that route or that run they just got us on? What was the formation? What was the structure? How do we want to adjust to that or did we just have a bust there?
With a defensive staff, there is no time for panic. When the analysis is distilled and processed, "I'll get with the defense and walk us through whatever adjustments we decide to make," Carl said.
The Pelini Brothers Are a Tandem Deal, No Matter What
Carl doesn't duck the next question, but he hedges a bit when we ask who exactly makes the final decision of what to call - him or his younger brother, the head coach?
"I do the hand signals, but it's based on a lean towards Bo," Carl said.
Carl said the premise has been to make that decision together, but Bo has indicated it might change this season. "He's giving me a lot more of the responsibilities," Carl said. "We'll see how that all plays out."
Rest assured, the Pelini brothers have come a long way from their first-year, on-the-field discussions. The evolution of Nebraska's defense has been consistent, incremental and highly effective. So Carl sees little need for definitive statements about who calls what.
"Whether I'm making the final call this year or Bo did last year, there's always great discussion between us," Carl said. "You run in the same defense, and you work together all week, so as the call is being made, you're on the same page anyway because the coaches and players all know what the call sheet says to do in certain situations. You've already planned it all out, so the call is just a byproduct of your discussion."
Carl paused a second or two, then couldn't help but laugh.
"Bo and I are always going to have our disagreements," he said, "but usually, it's not the call that causes it. More often than not, it's the execution of the call."
Will Compton, Lavonte David Make the Calls on the Field
Fortunately, decision-making gets distributed on the field with linebacker Will Compton getting the signals from Carl and informing his teammates what they need to do in base defense situations. In the nickel defense, linebacker Lavonte David is the one designated to make the call on the field.
"It's hard to put it all on the line when you don't huddle," Carl said. "To me, the sign I like to see in the spring and in the fall is a defense that's communicating with each other before the snap. When it's quiet out there, you know people are thinking too much and wondering what they're supposed to be doing. When a defense really starts to jell, you hear a lot more communication and see them point where they need to be. When you see that, as a coach, you know they're getting it."
Don't expect anything close to the complexity just described in Saturday's Spring Game.
"When we divide up the rosters, I don't know if I'll call the game," Carl said. "I might let others call it."
The Husker defense, like the offense, will play the Spring Game like it's a scrimmage.
"Last year, I think I only made three or four defensive calls the whole game," Carl said. "We just want everyone to play hard and be physical."
And not show anyone what's really up Tim Beck's sleeve offensively or Carl's own sleeve defensively.
The laughter you now hear is still Carl's. and he does not deny the truth.
Yes, Carl Would Pay to Watch Spring Game Performances
Carl Pelini knows Saturday's Spring Game crowd will be among the biggest in the country. He also knows that just about everyone in the stadium will have paid to get inside for a sneak preview of the Huskers' first Big Ten Conference team.
"Would I pay to go to a Spring Game?" Carl said, repeating a question.
"Yes!" he answered.
Even though the Huskers are dividing the teams equally and restricting the call sheet dramatically, Carl said it's still interesting to see how players can play.
"You're not evaluating your scheme in the spring game," Carl said. "You're grading players on their fundamentals and techniques. We don't go into a spring game trying to out-scheme our offense. It's all about evaluation. Can a guy take on a block? Can he tackle? Can he cover?"
Spring games, therefore, are hardly chess matches.
"But they're still fun," Carl said. "I'm like everyone else. I want to see if Jamal Turner can catch the ball, break a couple of tackles and go the distance with 70,000 people in the stands. I want to see if one of our young linebackers can have two or three sacks or make an interception. I want to see how a young DB can cover someone who's fast. That, to me, is what the Spring Game is all about."
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