The fall semester is over, and it is report card time. I’ve graded the members of the Nebraska football coaching staff on how well they coached their players and positions. It is time to see who passed, who needs to consider summer school, and who should update their resume.
Methodology: Much like that one English teacher you had, there is no clear formula at work, but these grades are a combination of:
- On-field performance. Was the position group a burden or a bright spot? As a side note: Coordinators were also judged on the whole of their unit.
- Improvement. Did the position group play better in 2012 than in 2011? Better in November than September? Or did they take a step back?
- Positional depth. How many players were in the mix for playing time? I think this is a fair representation of “coaching up” the talent to a level where they can contribute and/or succeed on the field. If a starter playing at 60% health is still better than the next reserve, that says something about how the coach is getting his players ready to go. Obviously, things like injuries, suspensions, and protecting redshirts was considered, but recruiting busts do not. In my opinion, a good coach should be able to turn lemons into lemonade – even if it takes a lot of squeezing.
- My gut opinion. I was at every home game, and watched every other game. I may not know every nuance of the game, but I’d like to think I have a decent idea of what’s going on.
It is also important to note that recruiting is NOT included in these grades. Why? First and foremost, I’m not enough of a recruitnik to know who lands the 4 and 5 stars, and who couldn’t sell a glass of water in the desert. Also, grading how a coach recruits leads to a lot of incomplete grades – you just cannot truly if a player is boon or a bust until their playing career is over.
Finally, while I have included some notable figures who are not full-time assistant coaches, I did not list every intern and grad assistant. With all due respect to Travis Borchardt (Football Intern), I don’t know what duties he had, or how well he performed them.
So with the explanations and disclaimers out of the way, let’s take a look at the report card. (All titles listed below are from huskers.com)
Rich Fisher – Assistant Coach/Wide Receivers
I’ll admit it – in the past I’ve taken a swipe or two at Fisher by referring to him as the “golf coach”, and I’m guessing you probably have too. But look at what his group accomplished: His receivers were widely perceived as the best in the Big 10. They caught damn near everything thrown their way – the reduction in dropped balls from 20111 was a noticeable improvement. The group was deep – after Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa, and Jamal Turner, there were a number of other WRs who contributed (Osborne, Wullenwaber, Allen, etc). And let’s not forget: to a man, this group contains physical and fearless blockers – just ask Wisconsin’s Devin Smith. Joke no more: the “Ol’ Golf Coach” is at the head of the class.
Ron Brown – Assistant Coach/Running Backs
Rex Burkhead missed most of the year with knee injuries, but the RB position barely missed a beat. Yes, much of the credit goes to Ameer Abdullah’s talent and work ethic, but give Brown his due for the solid performance of Braylon Heard and Imani Cross. All three of the reserves played at a high level – although I think the way carries are allocated could be improved. Additionally, under Brown the fullback corps is as deep as it has been in years.
Tim Beck – Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks
You may disagree, but I thought Beck’s offense was the main reason Nebraska won ten games. I like the run/pass balance that Beck achieves. The fast tempo can be a game changer – I can think of a multiple games where the quick pace wore out a defense. When Beck is on, he calls a great game and has a number of inventive formations and play calls up his sleeve. However, I question how much QB coaching Beck truly does; most of the stories/interviews I saw gave me the impression that Joe Ganz was acting as Martinez’s coach. In addition, Beck still has one or two games a year where it seems like every play call is a wrong number. And there are some fans who say he has bad habit of going to the well one too many times when a play works. But overall, Beck is the best OC Nebraska has had since 1997.
Steve Calhoun – Private Quarterback Coach
I cannot think of anybody outside of the program who had a bigger impact on Nebraska’s season than Calhoun, who tutored Taylor Martinez on his throwing mechanics and footwork during the offseason. We all know that Martinez is never going to be confused with Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or even Colin Kaepernick, but his time with Calhoun had a definite impact. Martinez is a much improved passer (especially when he received good protection from his line), and the improved technique made him a much better (and all conference) quarterback.
Terry Joseph – Assistant Coach/Secondary
Joseph was one of the two newbies on staff (Rick Kaczenski being the other), and I believe that Joseph had the better year, despite having a more challenging task. Joseph is the third coach in three years for this position group, so I’ll cut him some slack if the technique was not always the greatest. Nebraska finished in the Top 10 for Passing Defense and Pass Efficiency Defense; and did so without a consistent pass rush (outside of Eric Martin). And the position showed good depth as several guys saw playing time, replacing Alfonzo Dennard. I’d like to see the interceptions go up and pass interference calls go down.
James Dobson – Head Football Strength Coach
Thirty years ago, few schools were doing the things that legendary strength coach Boyd Epley was doing – and it showed on the field as Nebraska regularly had a noticeable physical advantage. Today, everybody has huge weight rooms, and their athletes undergo position-specific strength and speed training year round. But yet, I can point to several games where Nebraska was noticeably the stronger and better conditioned team in the fourth quarter. Don’t underestimate the role Dobson and his staff had in the multiple come from behind victories this year. In my opinion, Dobson is a quietly underrated part of the football staff.
Bo Pelini – Head Coach
Since Bo is becoming a polarizing figure, I’m going to go strictly by the methodology I laid out at the top so my biases don’t get in the way:
- On-field performance. A mixed bag. The six game winning streak, the come from behind victories, and the divisional championship get muted by the two blowout losses and avalanche of yards given up in the four losses.
- Improvement. I’m not sure if the 2012 team was more talented than the 2011 team (my guts says no), but I have no doubt that the 2012 squad had more mental toughness, more fight, and better leadership. However, the final two games make it hard to claim that the 2012 team was better at the end of the season than they were at the beginning.
- Positional depth. Another mixed bag. Some positions seemed pretty deep (WR), while others were tissue paper thin (D-line). I believe that if Bo got to do it over again, there would be some guys who do not redshirt. The other thing I’ll bring up is the talent gap between the upper and underclassmen – looking at the juniors and seniors on this team (especially defensively) it was tough to find a lot of guys likely to get drafted to the NFL. While I haven’t seen a lot from the freshmen and sophomores, I do think the talent level is improving. Now the trick is to get them educated in the system so they can get on the field.
- My gut opinion. Let’s talk intangibles: Bo’s teams stay out of jail, graduate, and win 9 or 10 games every year. Although you wouldn’t know if from ABC/ESPN, Bo’s sideline demeanor was improved this year, nor do I recall any incident where a member of the local media got into a snit with him. Yes, there are some puzzling mental breakdowns, but I’m not ready to jump ship on Bo just yet. I will always contend that nine (or 10) wins is a strong standard to beat – and one that should keep a coach relatively free from public scorn.
Vince Marrow – Graduate Assistant Coach/Tight Ends
If these grades were based on value received for the money spent, Marrow would be at the head of the class. As a Grad Assistant, Marrow made pennies compared to his colleagues, but his performance was better than most. Of course, it sure didn’t hurt that his position contained two seasoned veterans in Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton, who each turned in solid senior seasons. Jake Long showed some potential, but beyond that the cupboard looks rather empty for 2013. Not that it matters to Marrow – he’s already left for his new job at Kentucky.
Barney Cotton – Associate Head Coach/Offensive Line
Old Barney is definitely a fan favorite. A favorite whipping boy, that is. And yes, I’ll freely admit that I’m lukewarm on his body of work at Nebraska. But a good teacher tries to look at their students fairly. Objectively speaking, the offensive line was better in 2012 than it was in 2011. Better (but not great) depth, fewer (but still too many) penalties, and better run blocking (8th in the nation in rushing).
Of course, all good Husker fans like to nit-pick O Line play, so I will ding Barney for the weak play of the tackles, the inability to stop a decent pass rush (i.e. UCLA and Georgia), and his infatuation with moving guys to different positions. Seriously Barney: Andrew Rodriguez was becoming an above average guard, but it looks like his development has completely rebooted at tackle. Assess your guys, get ’em lined up right, and coach ’em up.
Depending on how you view Cotton, the fact that three walk-ons started all season (and were among the best players on the line) is either a coaching success story, or a damning indictment for how Barney develops scholarship talent. I’m a sucker for a good walk-on story, so I’ll go with the former. But it wouldn’t be hard to convince me otherwise…
John Garrison – Assistant Coach/Tight Ends
Since Garrison assists Barney Cotton with the offensive line, I feel most of what I said about Barney should apply to Garrison too. Give him credit for the improvements (stronger run blocking, fewer false starts and holds, and more capable bodies on the field), while also holding the weaknesses (pass protection, position switching, inconsistent play) against him too.
Much like with Tim Beck coaching quarterbacks, I question how much time Garrison put in with the tight ends, as I’m pretty sure I read and heard that Vince Morrow was coaching them. But since it is Garrison’s name on the bill, he gets the credit for the nice senior seasons put in by Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed. Garrison’s next challenge will be to coach up their replacement.
As an aside, somebody in the athletic department should consider revising Garrison’s bio page, as it touts his work in being “able to coach (Tyler) Moore on the mental challenges that come with early playing time”. I’m sure the staff at Florida will appreciate the work that Garrison put in.
John Papuchis – Defensive Coordinator
I really struggled with this one. Yes, Papuchis holds the title of Defensive Coordinator, but there is a wide perception/assumption that Pelini is truly the one who runs the defense. So how much credit does JP get for the improved statistical performance? And more importantly, how much blame does he take for the defensive debacles against UCLA, Ohio State, and Wisconsin?
My thinking is that since Papuchis does not currently coach a position group he gets full ownership of the defense. And by pretty much any measure (statistical, talent, depth, eyeball test) the 2012 defense was not as good as the 2011 group. The only thing keeping Papuchis from a D is the energy and enthusiasm he brings to the sideline. I like seeing the passion, especially when it comes out as joy.
Rick Kaczenski – Assistant Coach/Defensive Line
In Nebraska’s four losses, they gave up big chunks of yards and generally looked foolish on defense. You’ll notice that in those games the defensive line got dominated, the linebackers got tangled up, which resulted in big running lanes.
My other gripe with Kaczenski? The lack of developed depth. Baker Steinkuhler got hurt, Thad Randle battled injuries all year, and Chase Rome took a mini vacation from the program. While some young guys played in September and October, by the end of the season Nebraska was lining up Cam Meredith at D Tackle. If none of the guys who played earlier in the year were able to go (and I do not believe that all of them were injured) that is on Kaz. Given the importance of D-Line play in Pelini’s scheme, poor play up front can (and did) have catastrophic effects. Credit is given for converting Eric Martin from a 3rd and long blitzer to an every down defensive end.
Ross Els – Assistant Coach/Linebackers
Let’s start with the linebackers: Els entered the year with three senior starters (Will Compton, Sean Fisher, and Alonzo Whaley), the first two being returning starters. And yet, the LB play was inconsistent. Whaley and Fisher stood out in some games; but many other times you barely knew if they were on the field. I know the departure of Lavonte David would make any unit look bad, but I don’t think you can say that as a whole the linebackers were better in 2012 then they were in 2011. Extra credit is given for the contributions received from David Santos and Zaire Anderson (before injury).
But the main reason for Els’s low grade is his work as Special Teams Coordinator. The kick return teams – especially punts – were dreadful for most of the conference season, costing the team acres in field position as well as several turnovers. Special teams went from being a relative strength to a definite weakness. It should be noted that Els also serves as Recruiting Coordinator. I ask: if Els spread too thin? Would the team would be better served if another coach took over special teams? My opinion is yes.
As I mentioned above, there are some guys I cannot grade because I simply don’t know what their responsibilities were or how well they were carried out. Yet, I do think it is important to acknowledge the former Huskers on the staff trying to break into coaching or administration:
- Joe Ganz – Graduate Assistant Coach
- T.J. Hollowell – Graduate Assistant Coach
- Jake Wesch – Assistant Director of Football Operations
- Brandon Rigoni – Assistant Strength Coach
- Brenden Stai – Football Intern
- LaTravis Washington – Football Intern
I really like how this group covers the spectrum of the last 20 years of Nebraska football. Championships with Osborne (Stai). The peaks and valleys of the Solich years (Hollowell). The Callahan era (Wesch, Rigoni). As well as the transition to Bo Pelini (Joe Ganz, LaTravis Washington). These guys should be able to provide a good perspective to the rest of the staff – as well as the players – on what worked, what did not, and the culture that Nebraskans hold so dear.
Add it all up, and you get a grade point average of 2.46 on a 4.0 scale (excluding Steve Calhoun), or a barely above average C+ for the staff.