The offense is Tim Beck's baby, and Nebraska expects a big growth spurt soon.
“A baby grows remarkably from age 1 to age 2,” running backs coach Ron Brown said. “The first year seems like you're bobbling things all over the place. After that, you develop much more expertise. You see a lot of growth that second year.”
There was lots of bobbling in Beck's first season as an FBS-level offensive coordinator. Hamstrung by penalties, turnovers and a limited playbook, the Cornhuskers ranked 66th nationally in total yards. They were 44th when coach Bo Pelini fired former coordinator Shawn Watson after the 2010 season.
Quarterback Taylor Martinez is entering his third season as the starter but, more important, his second in the same system. The top four rushers, including 1,300-yard workhorse Rex Burkhead, also are back, as are seven of the top eight receivers.
Though much of the spread-option offense will continue to go through Burkhead, Beck plans to have backups like Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross to carry more of the load. Fullbacks could become more involved carrying the ball. More formations and personnel groupings are in the works.
Martinez can tie it all together if he becomes a sharper passer - he completed 56 percent last season - and better decision-maker.
The No. 17 Huskers want to get closer to a 50-50 run-pass split after running on two-thirds of their plays.
Beck used only a fraction of his repertoire last season for fear of overwhelming his players. He said he remembers introducing certain plays at practice and not feeling comfortable calling them in a game until several weeks later.
The Huskers averaged 43 points and 439 yards while winning their first four games. The production fell to 24 points and 366 yards against Big Ten opponents.
“Guys spent a lot more time focusing on their role and how they fit into the offense as opposed to the bigger picture,” tight end Ben Cotton said. “I think guys are figuring out how it fits in the bigger picture now. It's going to be a lot more fluid, a lot higher tempo, a lot faster pace. It's going to look a lot more like we want it to look.”
Most of the playbook will be available for the Sept. 1 opener against Southern Mississippi, Beck said, though he'll hold back as much as possible until the bigger games in October and November.
“The good thing is that I don't see those bewildered looks on their faces, like, `I'm lost, what do I do now?”' Beck said. “I see a lot more, `Yeah, coach, I got you.”'
Beck, the running backs coach his first three years at Nebraska, also has a better understanding of his job. He said he expects to mature as a play-caller.
Beck remembered installing a quarterback-keeper for last year's opener against Chattanooga. The Huskers weren't executing it well, and Chattanooga's defense was lined up to stop it. Martinez lost yards on three straight runs and on four of his first seven.
Nebraska won the game easily, but Beck said he realized while watching the film that play-calling like that against better opposition would get the Huskers beat.
“I kept running it, going, `Damn it, we're going to keep running it until I'm happy,”' Beck said. “I'd get stubborn and hard-headed and there were certain things I sometimes wanted to do, and I was going to do it. If it wasn't working, I'd get mad and want to hit it harder with a bigger hammer as opposed to moving on with the next thing.”
Beck had his shining moments. He adjusted in the second half against Ohio State, spreading the field with more receivers. That, along with a physical running game, helped Nebraska overcome a 21-point deficit to win 34-27 in the biggest comeback in school history. He called a masterful third quarter in a 24-3 win over Michigan State, with the Huskers running 26 plays for 169 yards and two touchdowns to break open the game.
The week before, in a 41-14 win over Minnesota, Beck capitalized on a vulnerable spot in the defense by calling a reverse that Kenny Bell turned into a freshman-record 82-yard TD.
The 46-year-old Beck is two years old than Pelini, and both are products of the powerhouse Cardinal Mooney High School program in Youngstown, Ohio. Beck went on to play at Central Florida and Pelini at Ohio State. Their coaching careers didn't intersect until after Pelini became Nebraska's head coach in 2008.
Beck was receivers coach at Kansas for three years before joining Pelini's staff. His duties included pass-game coordinator for the Jayhawks in 2007.
That was the year Kansas finished 12-1 and ranked No. 7. The Jayhawks were second nationally in scoring (42.8 ppg), eighth in total offense (479.8 ypg) and 17th in passing (291.0 ypg).
Having worked under Mark Mangino, Beck developed an affinity for wide-open offense. After Watson was fired, Beck asked Pelini for the job.
“I felt an advantage to hiring me was that I knew Bo and we grew up in the same hometown,” Beck said. “The mentality and culture we were brought up in is the culture that's here.
“As an offense, we weren't far off. Maybe we just needed to make it simpler.”