The Zone Read has become a staple in Nebraska's offense for at least a couple years now, although it seems to be getting more attention now that Taylor Martinez has torn up the turf with it the first couple of games this season. Fact is, Zac Lee ran it (or tried to run it) a fair amount last season, but people made more out of the Wildcat Nebraska used in the Holiday Bowl than they have the Zone Read.
But what is the Zone Read? What makes it go? Looking around for some articles from the regular media guys will leave you wanting, such as this one from the Seattle Times, an article entitled "Nebraska visits Washington with a high-powered offense" (which, after last year is sure sweet to see even if the jury is still out):
"They are a lot like Oregon now," he said. "They are putting in a lot of their stuff."
That means lots of zone-read option plays in which the quarterback can hand it off or keep it.
Maybe it's just me, but seems to me that all offensive plays involve the quarterback handing off the ball or keeping it, so that's not exactly very useful, is it?
Rich Kaipust from the Omaha World Herald was a little more descriptive in an article with Rex Burkhead:
With NU in the shotgun, the zone read starts with the I-back either coming from left-to-right or right-to-left in front of the quarterback. The quarterback puts the football in the gut of the I-back, with the option to let him keep it or pull it back and run.
A better description, but still it tells you nothing about the decision - what makes the quarterback decide to keep the ball or hand it off?
Chris Brown of Smart Football did an article in this year's Cornhusker Kickoff 2010 that incorporated an explanation of the zone read along with some other facets of Shawn Watson's offense. I can't really show it here, something about publishers and contracts, but I can provide you with some background and resources that will help.
There are differences in how teams run the zone read. Michigan's Rich Rodriguez, for example, has the quarterback read the backside defensive end, where Oregon uses a different approach in which they read the defensive tackle instead of end.
Your next question is "what is a read?", right? Sure it is. The offense is continually trying to find a mismatch against the defense. One of the ways in which they can do that is leave a defender unblocked, and then 'read' him by watching his first few steps and make a decision based upon what he does.
Rather than me duplicating the efforts of other fine bloggers out there, you can have a look at Varsity Blue for a look at the Michigan-style zone read, and at Rocky Top Talk for the Oregon style zone read. Taking a look at the graphics, animations, and video on those sites should give you a more complete understanding about what's going on when Taylor Martinez is deciding whether to keep it or hand it off.
Martinez has three things going for him running the zone read. First, his ball fakes are incredible. Remember Martinez' 67-yard touchdown run that Husker Mike mentioned in his report card - you thought Helu had the ball, too, didn't you? Second, Martinez is decisive. This is key because it adds an extra step or two in the play's process. Third - as we've all seen, Martinez is explosive. He doesn't exactly need an extra step or two since his first few steps put him ahead of the opposing defense.
What makes it most interesting? Whether or not Martinez can keep it up against Big 12 defenses.