For the second year in a row, Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson has had to go back to the drawing board and revamp the Husker offense at midseason. Last year, it was to implement a spread offense around a ball-control offense. This year, that spread look was abandoned in recent weeks to implement a power formation with multiple tight ends and (gasp!) a fullback. In recent weeks, Tom Osborne has been advising Watson as Watson and longtime Husker assistant Ron Brown have dug into old Husker playbooks to find alternatives to an unproductive offense.
There are two ways to look at this situation; it's a variant of the old "glass half-full/glass half-empty" discussion. On one hand, you have to admire the ability to recognize what's not working and adjust. Last spring, I dug into Watson's background as an offensive coordinator for an article in "Cornhusker Kickoff" and came away more impressed with Watson. Throughout his career, he's seemingly always played to his strengths. Some years, it was the running backs, others, it was the quarterback's arm. Sometimes it was a mix of the two. Sometimes he even found the need to switch quarterbacks. But I don't think Watson ever has had a situation like he's faced at Nebraska.This year's situation is a multi-faceted problem. A new, inexperienced quarterback would be taking the field along with new receivers. The quarterback situation was further complicated by the defection of Patrick Witt to Yale and repeated ACL injuries to Kody Spano. Then by mid-October, Nebraska was digging deep on the depth chart at I-back. In late August, Quentin Castille was kicked off the team for violating team rules. Roy Helu hurt his shoulder at Missouri, and was hampered for nearly a month. Rex Burkhead injured his foot after the Missouri game, and might return in a couple of weeks. Even Traye Robinson was banged up late against Baylor, meaning that Nebraska finished that game with their fifth string I-back.
Receiver is another dilemma. Deep down, I think the number one issue at receiver is simply a talent gap created by the previous regime. Almost everywhere else on the roster, development has improved the performance of players. Just look at the defense; two years ago, they were one of the worst in college football, and now statistically, they are one of the best. Offensive line seems better, and the depth at I-back looks pretty good with Helu, Burkhead, and Robinson. But wide receiver seems to be the exception, as Khiry Cooper and Brandon Kinnie have been thrown into duty despite their inexperience and unfamiliarity with the offense.
And that situation at receiver might explain the Huskers situation best. Whether this staff overestimated the receivers going into the season, or realized that's what they had to work with and tried to make it a go is irrelevent at this point. Once you get into a season, the only thing that matters is making adjustments. Those adjustments became necessary at the same time the depth at I-back disappeared, which created a dilemma for Watson and the offensive coaches. I reject the idea that the power offense was the solution in mid-October. Roy Helu wasn't healthy enough to carry the load, and there was nobody behind him ready to go. So Nebraska turned to their receivers, who simply weren't able to step up when needed. Whether it was the dropsies against Texas Tech or the turnovers against Iowa State, those two games illustrated the Huskers problems.
But what were Shawn Watson's options this summer while he tried to pencil in the Huskers offense? Count on Cooper, the baseball player, or Kinnie, the Juco who he hadn't had a chance to coach yet? Or count on guys like Menelik Holt and Curenski Gilleylen to step up? In hindsight, the answer probably was to count on the tight ends, who looked so good in spring practice...but hindsight is always twenty-twenty, especially from us amateurs. That's the fundamental question that Bo Pelini and Shawn Watson will need to address in the offseason: why was there a need to revamp the offense midseason? Did the coaches make faulty assumptions or faulty decisions? Or did the players simply fail to step up and deliver, despite the best actions and interventions of the coaches. Only the staff can really answer that, and that's a fundamental question that this staff will need to answer after the season is over.
Now is not the time to ask that question. There's a Big XII North championship waiting to be won, and this team still has goals to meet. Right now, the solution is to do exactly what Watson, Brown, and Tom Osborne have been doing. Roll up their sleeves and adjust the offense based on what these players can do. In my job, I've encountered similar situations where all heck has broken loose, and you've got to resist the temptation to place blame when things are broken. Get things fixed as best you can, using whatever means necessary, and get things back in operation. Then, when things stabilize, you look at what went wrong and make the necessary changes at that time.
Is Shawn Watson part of the problem or part of the solution? That's not a question for Bo Pelini to answer in October and November. Pelini will need to answer that question in January, and probably should start asking that question in December. Certainly all aspects of the Husker program need to be questioned: at it's core, was the offenses struggles related to recruiting, development, training, coaching, or simply bad luck?
I won't pretend to definitively know the answer, but it's important that Bo Pelini find an answer because revamping the offense at midseason is a horrible habit to get into. It's great to see this staff making those adjustments when they are necessary, but it shouldn't be necessary to keep making those major adjustments in the middle of the season.