Barney Cotton

Holiday Cotton Bowl

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NU Coaching Grades – 2013 (C)

It took a little while, but the report card is in.  I’ve graded the members of the Nebraska football coaching staff on how well they coached their positions and developed their players.  It is time to see who passed, who needs to consider summer school, and who should update their resume.  Click here to see last year’s grades.

Methodology:  Last year, my approach was rough.  While I utilized the same criteria below, there was no hard and fast rule to how the grades were issued.  Looking back, there are some grades that were tough for me to justify.  So this year, I’ll assign a letter grade (A through F) for each of my four factors and then give each coach an overall GPA (using the standard 4.0 scale).

Here are the things I’m grading the coaches on:

  • On-field performance.  Did the unit made the team better or were they a weakness?  Did they live up to the hype or a big disappointment?  Coordinators are also judged on the overall performance of their area.
  • Improvement.  Did the position group play better in 2013 than in 2012?  Better in November than September?  Or did they take a step back?
  • Positional depth.  How many players were in the mix for playing time?  When injuries occurred, was there a noticeable drop off to the backup?  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 his backup, that says something about how the coach is getting his players ready to go.  On the flip side, if a several guys are  injured and the unit plays as well as (or better than) they have been, that reflects well on a coach.  Obviously, things like injuries, suspensions, and protecting redshirts were considered, but recruiting busts do not.  In my opinion, a good coach should be able to turn most 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 can’t diagram the Tampa 2, but I feel that I have a good understanding 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 might be a double agent secretly working for Wisconsin.  Also, grading how a coach recruits leads to a lot of incomplete grades – you simply cannot truly tell if a player is boon or a bust until their playing career is over.

So with the explanations and disclaimers out of the way, let’s take a look at the report card, starting with the straight A student.  (All titles listed below are from

John Garrison – Assistant Coach/Offensive Line
Garrison was easily the star performer of the staff.  The line seemed stronger and more cohesive than 2012.  Throughout the season, the O line was a strength of the team.  The depth, as tested by the number of injuries that took out stars, starters, and key reserves, was outstanding.

While it is possible that Garrison’s grade is inflated as a result of having four seniors (and multi-year starters), I don’t think anybody would disagree that grade was earned during conference play when a starter seemed to get injured every week.

Recruiting does not factor into my grades, but having Garrison included in “top recruiter” lists cements him as the head of the class.
2013 GPA:  4.25, A+
2012 Grade:  C 

Rich Fisher – Assistant Coach/Wide Receivers 
Fisher was the valedictorian of the 2012 grades, but he slips a little bit for 2013.  Why?  Part of it was not fully meeting the high preseason expectations placed on returning starters Quincy Enunwa, Kenny Bell, and Jamal Turner along with touted freshman Jordan Westerkamp.  I’m not sure if I can truly say the receivers were top to bottom better in 2013 than 2012.  It felt like there were a few more drops than the 2012 unit.  Of course, considering there were three very different QBs throwing passes at them throughout the year, I can forgive some of those drops.

Fisher’s group has the headliners, but don’t discount the positional depth, with several guys getting decent reps.  I like that Fisher seems to get solid contributions from touted recruits and walk-ons.

2013 GPA:  3.75, B+
2012 Grade:  A

Rick Kaczenski – Assistant Coach/Defensive Line
No position group made a bigger improvement over 2012 than the defensive line.  First and foremost was the improved depth.  It felt like there were always fresh bodies able to come in.  Losing Avery Moss at the end of the season could have set up a repeat of the disastrous end to the 2012 season.  Instead, Kaz plugged in the next guy, and the drop-off was minimal.

The other key improvement was in the line’s ability to generate a pass rush.  Certainly, Randy Gregory was a key component, but the line was able to put more heat on opposing QBs even when Gregory wasn’t on the field.  Never underestimate the benefit that a pass rush has on a Pelini defense.

2013 GPA:  3.625, B+
2012 Grade:  D

Ron Brown – Assistant Coach/Running Backs 
You end up looking pretty good when you have Ameer Abdullah in your position group, and therefore Brown grades out well.  But if you look at all of the backs under Brown’s tutelage, you’ll find excellent talent.  This leads to one of my biggest gripes on Coach Brown:  I would like to see more touches for the backups (especially the dynamic Terrell Newby), but I can understand why he would be hesitant to remove his franchise player.  (And I’ll always argue that the fullbacks should get some carries).  I probably should ding Brown for the sometimes shoddy ball security, but he has enough good will built up for me to let it slide – for this year.
2013 GPA:  3.5, B+
2012 Grade:  A-

Ross Els – Assistant Coach/Linebackers 
Surprised to see Els this high?  If you take a second look above, you’ll notice that this grade is only about Ross Els – Linebackers coach.  Ross Els – Linebackers coach is a decent coach.  He lost three senior starters and opened the season with a true freshman, a guy coming off of a knee injury, and a top backup/occasional starter from 2012.  Yes, it took some time for Els to put guys in the right positions (taking the MIKE responsibilities away from David Santos and giving them to Michael Rose was a smart move) but there is absolutely no denying that the backers improved greatly as the season went on.  Going into 2014, the LB corps looks like a strength of the entire team.

I separated Els’s duties as Linebackers coach from his other roles for two reasons:  1) to help illustrate that Els has too much on his plate, and 2) to make sure Els received proper credit for the performance and growth of his position group.
2013 GPA:  3.5, B+
2012 Grade:  n/a (not graded solely as a LB coach)

Terry Joseph – Assistant Coach/Secondary 
The secondary was a strength of the defense.  Granted, for the first part of the season that was akin to saying Bo is the best coach named “Pelini” – the bar is kind of low.  The development of Corey Cooper from potential recruiting bust to budding star is a positive, as is the performances of Leroy Alexander and Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

I’m a little concerned that there seems to be more turnover in the secondary coaching job than turnovers produced by the members of the secondary, but I’m optimistic that new coach Charlton Warren can stem that.
2013 GPA:  3.5, B+
2012 Grade:  B

Joe Ganz – Graduate Assistant (Quarterbacks)
Regardless of Tim Beck’s official title, I think we can all agree that Ganz was the de facto QB coach on the 2013 squad.  Given that there were three different starting QBs in Nebraska’s last seven games, Ganz did a pretty damn good job – especially considering his true title and salary.  I’ll be interested to see how Beck handles the QBs this fall.
2013 GPA:  3.375, B
2012 Grade:  n/a

John Papuchis – Defensive Coordinator 
I wonder if Papuchis will ever get away from the stigma that Bo truly runs the defense and he is just a glorified assistant.  Regardless, his title means the responsibility falls on him, so he gets the blame for the embarrassing chunks of yardage bled out against Wyoming and UCLA as well as the credit for containing Michigan and Georgia.

The improvement from August to January was very easy to see, and overall, I felt the 2013 defense was better than the 2012 version.  As a result, his grade for on-field performance isn’t that great, but he makes up for it with improvement and depth.
2013 GPA:  3.25, B
2012 Grade:  C-

Tim Beck – Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks 

I gave Beck a lot of credit for depth on offense as getting to nine wins with a patchwork line and two backup quarterbacks was no easy feat.  That said, I think most fans (myself included) expected more from the offense – not necessarily the 50 points per game that Jamal Turner referenced in fall camp, but certainly something that could score more than 23 points at Minnesota.

As the offensive coordinator, Beck gets the bill for turnover issues that plague this team (and costs them wins).  My gut tells me that after Martinez went down Beck struggled to know how he wanted to attack defenses.  Credit is given for putting the brakes on the hurry up pace when it was obvious that the young defense was struggling.  Despite a down year, I still maintain that Beck is the best offensive coordinator Nebraska has had since Osborne retired.
2013 GPA:  3.00, B
2012 Grade:  B+

Bo Pelini – Head Coach 
The Bo blurb is tough to write.  I feel like the political reporter who will be called “too liberal” and “too conservative” by partisans – within the same article.  No matter what I write, I’m going to tick somebody off.

Since Bo is becoming a polarizing figure, I’m going to go strictly by the methodology I laid out at the top:

It is worth noting that I am not factoring the “F______ fans” audio gate into his grades.  It’s not fair to base his 2013 grade on something that happened two years ago.

  • On-field performance.  I am on record saying that 9 wins matters, but I think we all expected a better outcome to the season.  I like how the 2013 Huskers won the close games (5-0 in games decided by less than seven points), but nobody likes the manner in which they lose (average margin of defeat:  16.25 points).  Too many mental mistakes, wasted timeouts, an embarrassing punt return game, and a turnover margin that almost got him fired.
  • Improvement.  The team got better from beginning to end.  The team that beat Georgia would have beaten UCLA and Minnesota.  I also look at Bo’s off-field “improvement”.  He’s learning and improving as a coach.  I give Bo credit for his improvement in being more personable, embracing fun (his prank and Harlem Shake videos), and for his role in getting Jack Hoffman a touchdown.  That improvement may not be as fast or dramatic as we want it to be, but it is there.
  • Positional depth.  The team talent, speed, and athleticism was noticeably improved in 2013 at a variety of positions.  Anytime you lose a four year starting QB, an All-American lineman, and other contributors and avoid complete meltdown is a good thing.
  • My gut opinion.  I like Bo Pelini as a man.  I like what he stands for, and how he runs his program.  I want to believe in Bo as a coach.  I see the potential and the growth.  I see a coach who is coming into his own and truly understanding what it takes to consistently win on the highest levels.  I also see a coach who is haunted by demons, whose passions run deep and hot, and is having to play catch up from bad recruiting classes, schematic woes, and a transition to a completely different league.  My grade here would probably be higher, if not for November 29.  Against Iowa, Bo coached like somebody desperate to save his job, and acted like somebody who knew he had lost it.  The whole day left a bad taste in my mouth.  Had Eichorst pulled the trigger, I would have supported that decision.  But I will do as I did in 2003, 2007, and every other year:  support the head coach of the University of Nebraska, and wish success upon him.

2013 GPA:  3.0, C
2012 Grade:  B-

Barney Cotton – Associate Head Coach/Run Game Coordinator/Tight Ends/Offensive Line 
Barney gets a boost for having his name on the run game, as well as having a hand in the O line’s success.  Play at his core position group (tight end) was underwhelming, even when factoring in the loss of Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton as well as the injuries to Jake Long.  There was not a lot of improvement, and due to injuries, the position was not very deep.

But overall, this should be considered a good year for Barney.  He seems to have dropped his role as punching bag for the fans.  Now he is kind of a forgotten man on the staff.  Personally, I think Cotton probably being anonymous.
2013 GPA:  2.625, C+
2012 Grade:  C

James Dobson – Head Strength Coach
Dobson replaced Barney as the official Message Board Whipping Boy.  I’ve read a lot of the criticism on him, some of which comes from people who claim to understand the athletic medicine/training field who claim that Dobson’s impact borders on malpractice.

And yet….I have a hard time laying the blame for injured knees on the offensive line at his doorstep.  I’m not saying those folks are wrong, I just want to hear those claims from somebody who is more visible than a message board screen name.

Early in the season, I noted that the players appeared gassed at times during games.  That definitely falls on him.
2013 GPA:  2.375, C
2012 Grade:  B

Ross Els – Assistant Coach/Special Teams Coordinator/Recruiting Coordinator
Above, I graded Els strictly as a Linebackers coach, and I think he graded out pretty well.  Despite having “recruiting coordinator” in his title, I’m not going to grade him on that – I just don’t follow recruiting enough to give a fair and accurate grade.  That leaves us with Els’s role as Special Teams Coordinator.

Let’s begin by looking back at what I wrote a year ago:

“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.”

Sadly, every word is still true.  Jamal Turner bumbled two punts in the opener against Wyoming, and yet it was still better than this.  There were two fake punt attempts (against UCLA and Iowa) that not only destroyed any hope of a Husker comeback, but were tragically ill-conceived (especially the one against Iowa).  Frankly, the right legs of placekicker Pat Smith and kickoff specialist Mauro Bondi are the only things keeping Ross Els – Special Teams Coordinator from a big fat F.
2013 GPA:  0.5, D-
2012 Grade:  D (for all roles)

*   *   *

Here are my individual grades for each coach:

Coach On-field Performance Improvement Positional Depth Gut Opinion GPA
John Garrison A A A+ A+ 4.250
Rich Fisher B+ B+ A A 3.750
Rick Kaczenski A A B B+ 3.625
Ron Brown A A C+ B+ 3.500
Ross Els B A B+ B+ 3.500
Terry Joseph B+ B+ B+ B+ 3.500
Joe Ganz B B A B+ 3.375
John Papuchis C+ A A B 3.375
Tim Beck C+ B A C+ 3.000
Bo Pelini C+ B B+ B 3.000
Barney Cotton B C B C+ 2.625
James Dobson C C B+ C 2.375
Ross Els D F D F 0.500

Add it all up, and you get a grade point average of 3.10 on a 4.0 scale, or a respectable B average for the staff.

2013 GPA:  3.10, B

2012 GPA:  2.46, C+

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(Author’s note:  Wondering why there is a random letter in parentheses in the title of this post?  Not sure how this post corresponds to the daily letter in the April A to Z Challenge?  Like clicking on links?  These questions are all answered here.)

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