The calendar pages sure turn fast, even faster than Tim Beck likes to run plays.
It seemed not too long ago that Beck was at a news conference describing his vision for his Husker offense. Now here we are in Year 3 of Beck calling the plays.
Say this: It's never been dull. And sometimes it's been really quite good. Just not consistently enough for Beck's liking.
“We had a good offense last year, but we still weren’t a great offense,” Beck said this week on the brink of Saturday's first spring practice. “We turned the ball over too much. We had crucial penalties. We've got to be better in pass protection."
The Huskers were 26th in total offense (460.8 yards a game) and 28th in scoring offense (34.8 points). There were times, such as early in the third quarter against Georgia in the Capital One Bowl, when it looked nearly unstoppable, leaving an SEC defense gasping.
There were other times — such as late in the third quarter and fourth quarter of that same game — when the Huskers couldn’t overcome themselves.
Everyone is quick to recall running back Ameer Abdullah’s fumble in the third quarter with the score tied. But Beck also points to a fourth-quarter interception when Nebraska was trying to rally.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez made a great check at the line, Beck said. The play was there. But the receiver ran a busted route, the line’s protection was subpar. Martinez threw a pick.
“We score and it’s 45-38 with seven minutes to go in the game,” Beck said.
Missed opportunities. Enough of them and that's the difference between good and great.
Turnovers have been the wall in the middle.
Nebraska turned the ball over 35 times in 2012. That tied for 118th out of 120 FBS teams. And the Huskers ranked 120th with 22 lost fumbles.
How to solve it?
A physical spring could be one answer. Husker coach Bo Pelini has said this camp will be filled with plenty of “live contact.” But he also said coaches will limit contact for key figures such as Martinez and Abdullah, who will handle the ball as much as anyone in 2013.
Beck said it’s a tough balance of wanting to keep skill players healthy but also giving them enough contact to work on ball security. So what do you do?
“There’s drills you do where they’re not getting tackled, but, still, defensively they constantly rip at the ball and strip at the ball,” Beck said. “They do things like that to make sure that through traffic the quarterback and running back always carry the ball the right way. So we manage it. We just don’t always make the contact live and take them to the ground.”
Find the cure for the turnover troubles and it's hard to not see this Husker offense flying high in 2013. There is good reason Beck is so full of optimism.
He has a senior quarterback with three years of starting experience, an all-conference player at right guard, at least three explosive wide receivers and a returning running back who had 1,137 yards rushing last year.
And while the bowl game did not turn out as the Huskers hoped, Beck believes there was something gained from the experience. For almost three quarters, the Huskers had the Bulldog defense reeling.
Leaving Orlando, Fla., he felt players realized how near they were to taking another step.
“We’re on the right track and we’re close,” Beck said. “Sometimes it takes a game like that, and it almost wakes your team up: ‘You know what guys? We can be pretty good. We just have to stop shooting ourselves in the foot.’”
With that, let's take a closer look at each position group, with some input from Beck.
The conversation always starts and ends with Martinez. You might recall last spring that talk of his footwork was all the rage. And there was improvement.
The stats showed it. Martinez completed 62 percent of his passes. It wasn’t the 70 percent goal he set for himself, but those are numbers plenty good enough to win games if a quarterback can reduce turnovers.
Ah, but those turnovers. Martinez threw 12 interceptions last fall and had the biggest slice of Nebraska’s 22 fumbles. Turnovers come with the position, but Beck is hoping improved decision-making will cut down on those numbers.
“I just want to see him throw the ball away when it’s not there sometimes,” Beck said. “He got a lot better. But I want to see improvement with his drops, his technique. He has to continue to strive. Like anything, if you get lackadaisical at it, you’re not going to be very good. And then on top of that, it’s just managing it, not taking maybe as many chances in the throw game as he did at times.”
With Martinez having limited contact and having a firm grasp on the starting job, as much attention probably will fall on redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong.
Armstrong is coming back after missing the last half of the season's practices because of knee surgery.
"So I’m curious to see his retention and his ability to put that in action," Beck said. "He’s been out for a while, since the Northwestern game, basically. I’m kind of curious to how he responds to that."
One thing Beck doesn't doubt at all is how Armstrong can command a huddle.
"He’s got great intangibles, no question about it. “
Worth watching: Don’t lose sight of Ron Kellogg III in the battle for backup quarterback. The walk-on is a senior. Coaches respect his work ethic. He also probably knows the offense as well as anybody on the roster.
The most sure thing on the offensive line is all-conference right guard Spencer Long. Every other job will come with a fight. Three senior tackles — Jeremiah Sirles, Brent Qvale and Andrew Rodriguez — are competing for the lion's share of snaps at two spots. And soon they'll have company from junior college recruit Matt Finnin, who arrives this summer.
But for now, the most interesting position battles may be at center and left guard.
“Those are the areas where you had graduation … so, naturally, there’s an assumption that there’s a hole there,” Beck said.
But he also is upbeat about those positions. He felt Cole Pensick and Mark Pelini held their own when given opportunities at center against Iowa and Georgia after the injury to Justin Jackson.
“And then at the left guard position, it’s open,” Beck said. “It’s probably the most open position we've got."
Options include young players Jake Cotton, Mike Moudy, Ryne Reeves and Corey Whitaker. (Juco recruit Chongo Kondolo also could be in the fray at center or guard when he arrives this summer.)
Pensick? He'll probably see his share of snaps at both center and left guard.
“That’s part of spring. Part of spring is finding your matchups, finding your best guys," Beck said. "We rep a lot of guys. We keep our two-huddle system alive. We’re going to get a great chance to evaluate all the guys.”
Worth watching: Redshirt freshman Paul Thurston is someone to keep on the radar. Thurston will get a look at center. If he did happen to come along in a hurry, that potentially could open the option of playing Pensick at left guard.
Looking for leaders? Abdullah could the guy for the offense.
“He took that over a little even last year,” Beck said. “One thing about him, he had a couple of games where he carried the ball 30 times. He was a war daddy. He grew into a fierce competitor. Loves to compete. Loves to win. I think he has a lot of respect from our team.”
With Braylon Heard set to transfer, big sophomore back Imani Cross is currently the main competition for Abdullah. But running backs coach Ron Brown’s room will fill up with the summer additions of two touted recruits: Terrell Newby and Adam Taylor.
With those backs not here yet, and with Abdullah perhaps having limited contact, it’s a big opportunity for the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Cross.
“I like what Imani did as a true freshman," Beck said. "Obviously, I want to see more of him this spring. His role will continue to grow as he becomes more familiar with things.”
Worth watching: We dare not leave out the fullbacks. It should be one of the better position battles, between seniors C.J. Zimmerer and Mike Marrow, and sophomore Andy Janovich. All three played in big moments throughout the year. Who grabs the upper hand this spring?
Aside from senior Jake Long, this group couldn’t be more green. Quite the change from last year, when Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton were manning the position.
Local products Sam Cotton, David Sutton and Trey Foster are young players who will get good looks. And new recruits Greg Hart and Cethan Carter may have an opportunity for an early splash when they arrive this summer.
Potential, yes. But Beck admits the group “is probably the biggest question mark going into spring this year.”
Assistant coach Barney Cotton will be the new man in charge of molding that group.
"It's going to be one veteran and a whole lot of youth, but the youth is talented, the youth is energetic,” Cotton said.
Worth watching: Cotton's new role. And given that he will still be involved with the O-line, how different will it really be from the old role?
Cotton's many years of coaching and being a coordinator is a big reason Beck said he wanted Cotton to take over the tight ends after Vince Marrow left.
“My thought process going into this was, 'Here we are with one guy (Jake Long) with some playing experience and three novice young freshmen (at tight end) and seven returning offensive linemen,'" Beck said. "Who would you move: the veteran coach or the young coach to coach the young guys? How do you want to situate it? So I think it was a really good move to put Barney at that position."
Some might consider this position loaded because of the three returning playmakers — Kenny Bell, Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner.
But Beck wants added depth, and the development of some young receivers this spring is an important in helping that cause.
Last year was a prime example of how important depth can be. Husker receivers were hit hard by injuries, including season-ending setbacks to Taariq Allen and Tyler Wullenwaber. Both are expected to miss spring ball as they recover.
"When you lose all those guys, when you're playing the same three or four guys all the time, they wear down when you're playing 82 plays a game," Beck said.
To take some heat off Bell, Enunwa and Turner, the coach is hoping young talent such as Alonzo Moore, Tyler Evans and Jordan Westerkamp can step up this spring.
"The first group, they've got to challenge themselves to continue to strive to be the best group they can be," Beck said. "But we've got to bring along some of the younger guys. … They have to become players for us."
Worth watching: Westerkamp. Had he not been redshirting, Beck said the freshman probably would have been in the rotation at the end of last season.
A knee injury slowed him some last fall, but Westerkamp's progress by the end of the year was clear to the coach.
"I think Jordan would be the first to tell you (last year) was an eye-opening experience for him," Beck said. "He's a guy that really worked hard and improved his game. He's a smart guy. He understands playing the position. He has some natural instincts playing. He just needed to know exactly how to apply all that."