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Steven M. Sipple: NU fans should hope Stepp's comments indicate shift in offensive approach

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Red-White Spring Game 5.1

The Red team's Gabe Ervin (22) runs the ball while being pursued by the White team's Phalen Sanford in the second half of the Red-White Spring Game on May 1 at Memorial Stadium.

Steven M. Sipple and Parker Gabriel run down the four most interesting takeaways from Scott Frost's post-practice news conference Friday.

In case you missed it, Nebraska running back Markese Stepp was delightfully blunt in some of his recent comments to media.

He was as direct as a big back slamming into a Big Ten linebacker.

He arrived in Lincoln over the winter after playing three seasons at USC. It's safe to say NU's style of offense appeals to him more than USC's. 

"Here, it's more gritty, hand-in-the-dirt, smash-mouth football," Stepp said. "At USC, it was more pretty. More flamboyant, I guess." 

OK, then. 

The legendary Trojan coach John McKay just rolled over in his grave. A "flamboyant" offense? 

Lady Gaga is flamboyant. Cher is flamboyant. Madonna is flamboyant. USC fans probably would prefer a different adjective. The cigar-smoking McKay definitely would've preferred a different adjective.  

At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, Stepp really isn't the best fit for the Trojans' pass-heavy, Air Raid system. 

"They were throwing like 50 times a game, something like that," he said. "It was three running backs rotating and it was probably 15 carries divided up between them. Here, if I'm not mistaken, Nebraska was second in rushing in the Big Ten last year. That was the No. 1 thing to me. They made an emphasis on running the ball. 

"This style of offense, they want to get that sh-- running downhill." 

Excuse the language, but that's beautifully blunt. Delightfully direct. Stepp's comments surely are music to the ears of a lot of Nebraska fans, especially old-school types who remember when the Huskers actually did play "gritty, hand-in-the-dirt, smash-mouth football."  

They haven't always played that way in recent years. The commitment has waned. If Nebraska really wanted to consistently get its backs running downhill last season, it would have beaten Minnesota, to name one example. It would have committed to running downhill — hammering away with basic handoffs and pitches — against a Gopher squad that was without 33 players because of COVID-19. It wouldn't have allowed power back Dedrick Mills to go 17 plays between carries at one point. 

Nebraska ran the ball 36 times and threw it 29 that day. The ratio should've weighed more heavily toward the run. But Husker coach Scott Frost insisted on throwing, even into the wind, when basic run plays would've made much more sense, especially considering the Gophers entered the game allowing opponents to rush for nearly 7 yards per attempt. 

When I think of downhill running attacks, what doesn't come to mind is an offense in which the leading rusher is a quarterback. Junior QB Adrian Martinez led Nebraska last season in carries (91) and rushing yards (521). Mills, now an undrafted free agent with the Detroit Lions, carried 84 times for 396 yards, and wispy quarterback Luke McCaffrey ranked third on the team in carries (65) and rushing yards (364). 

This season, Frost should emphasize lightening Martinez's rushing load for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that two untested freshmen back him up. 

Frost probably should consider hammering away at defenses using Stepp, who in two-plus seasons at USC rushed 100 times for 505 yards and six touchdowns. That's 5.1 yards per carry. That would fly in the Big Ten.  

The topic of Friday's Two-Minute Drill is Nebraska's offensive line and the interesting picture as it relates to depth.

The words coming out of Nebraska's preseason camp indicate there's a shift in offensive style occurring — a shift toward something that is, well, less flamboyant and more old-school Nebraska. Words and actions, though, can be agonizingly different. We'll soon find out if Frost's offense really is evolving toward one that better fits the Big Ten.

I'm talking about an offense that goes strong at defenses with hard-charging running backs consistently leading the way. I'm talking about an offense that shows proper patience with such an approach, mindful that 3-yard runs in the first quarter can turn into much longer ones as the defense wears down.

"We've got to be able to run the ball in this league," Husker running backs coach Ryan Held said. "We can't rely on Adrian to run the ball all the time. There are times we'll need him to. But we've got to be able to run the football. The nice thing is, we're talented at other positions, and that can really open up some things. But this league is tough. Three yards is a good play in this league.

"We've got to be physical. I'm on our guys. You can't tiptoe through the tulips." 

Nebraska now has some tall and fleet receivers perfect for the downfield play-action game. But effective play-action requires effective downhill rushing.

Nebraska now has some running backs who easily could be mistaken for inside linebackers, most notably Stepp, Gabe Ervin (6-0, 215) and Sevion Morrison (6-0, 210). 

We're likely going to hear those names called a lot this season. 

"I feel like, overall, we all can do everything pretty well as a running back room," Stepp said. "Time after time in practice, everybody is creating yards after contact. It's not just one person; it's everybody. Time after time, people are making people miss. So I feel like, at this point, it's time to put it out there and let everybody else see it. 

"It's been a question how the RBs are doing at Nebraska. But I feel like we have a good room, and I think we're all hungry to show people what we're made of."  

Sounds like a gritty plan to me. 

Contact the writer at ssipple@journalstar.com or 402-473-7440. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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