The Nebraska football team found an important piece for its 2022 season in the transfer portal, landing former Texas quarterback Casey Thompson. Combined with the hiring of offensive coordinator Mark Whipple from Pittsburgh, Nebraska will have a new signal caller and play caller on offense this fall.
Both Thompson and Whipple have different skill sets than the previous regime at their positions, likely resulting in an offensive philosophy overhaul. While the exact specifics will only be known once Nebraska kicks off against Northwestern, Thompson has the talent to succeed in Whipple’s scheme.
While at Pittsburgh, Whipple ran a pass-heavy scheme with 2021 Heisman Trophy finalist Kenny Pickett at the helm. The offense led the ACC in points per game, with the passing attack leading the way with 44 passing touchdowns and 8.7 yards per pass attempt.
Thompson, the 2021 Big 12 leader in touchdown passes, showed promise in pass-heavy gameplans. In the three games where Thompson threw 30 or more pass attempts, he finished with 1,026 passing yards, 13 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Whipple’s passing scheme involves spreading the field out with receivers, running several “levels” type concepts where the quarterback has to make quick reads on routes on the same side of the field. At Texas, Thompson showed readiness to go through his progressions, and make sound decisions with the football.
In the first quarter of Texas’ game against Oklahoma State, Thompson made a quick read on a four-wide receiver spread formation, finding the break in the double team off the snap and leading his receiver to a huge completion deep.
In the Longhorns’ season finale against Kansas State, Texas ran a rollout pass with three receivers headed to the right side. Thompson couldn’t find an open man, so he bought time in the pocket with a pump fake and found his checkdown target open on the left side of the field for a first down.
Thompson has proven capable of making sound reads of the football, even when he doesn’t have ample time to throw. Of his 24 touchdown passes in 2021, 19 of them came when he had less than 2.5 seconds to throw the ball. Of all snaps where Thompson had less than 2.5 seconds to throw the ball, the offensive line on average gave him 1.7 seconds of time, the fewest amount for any Big 12 quarterback.
While lack of time in the pocket did result in some mistakes by Thompson, it also showed his ability to hang tough in the pocket and extend plays. While not the same big-play rushing-threat former Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez was, both Martinez and Thompson have the skill to stay alive in the pocket and make something out of nothing. Against TCU, a Horned Frog linebacker got into the backfield during a rollout pass. Thompson juked him away and followed his blockers downfield for a big first down gain.
Another part of Whipple’s offensive scheme that plays into Thompson’s strengths is the use of passes toward the sidelines. Thompson’s deep passes were not particularly accurate when throwing down the middle of the field, as evidenced by his ill-advised interception into triple coverage against TCU. However, when throwing deep to the sideline outside the numbers, Thompson threw for six touchdowns and just one interception.
A favorite outside route of Thomspon’s was the wheel route concept, where a running back or receiver runs a quick horizontal out pattern before shifting to a vertical route near the sideline. Thompson was solid at fitting the ball in the window where only his target could get it. Two of Thompson’s five touchdown passes against Kansas came on wheel route concepts. Nebraska had success with the wheel route concept in 2021, so look for Whipple to keep that around in the playbook.
Short outside passes, such as bubble screens and swing passes, were a staple on early downs in both Texas’ and Pittsburgh’s offenses last season, with Thompson often making solid throws to lead the receiver for more yards. While there were a few incompletions on these passes, Thompson stayed turnover free on a play where disaster can easily strike.
An area where Nebraska is looking to improve offensively in 2022 is in the red zone. Nebraska finished 106th in red zone offense in 2021, whereas Pittsburgh and Texas both placed in the top 30. In the red zone, Thompson completed 63.9% of his passes for 13 touchdowns and 1 interception.
The red zone was by far his strongest area of the field, with Thompson posting a 224.17 passer rating. His accuracy on goal line fade routes helped contribute to his success, with textbook passes floated to his receivers behind the coverage.
A key facet of Whipple’s red zone offense is the frequent use of the tight ends. Thompson had solid rapport with his tight ends at Texas, completing four red zone touchdowns to his tight ends. With experienced senior Travis Vokolek and highly touted freshman Thomas Fidone II leading the way, the talent is there for a strong revival of the red zone passing game.
Nebraska’s offense showed room for improvement in 2021, both Thompson and Whipple have experience in key areas to turn the offense around. Across his stops in football, Whipple has based his offense on maximizing the skills of the talent around him, and will have an intriguing challenge putting the skills of Thompson into the Husker offense.