We've heard all offseason that Scott Frost wants to transition toward more of a CEO role as head coach at Nebraska. In order for him to do that, he needed to go out and hire an offensive coordinator he could trust. “If I am going to take a step back at all from coaching offense and calling plays,” Frost said, “I wanted someone who has done it a lot, who was experienced, had done it at an elite level, who had coached at an elite level and that I felt like could go into a room and take over and be the face of the offense.”
Fourth in a series examining Scott Frost's new assistants.
He seemingly did just that with the hire of Mark Whipple, a 2021 semifinalist for the Broyles Award. With over 40 years of coaching experience, the 64-year-old Whipple is a seasoned play-caller who has been through the wars as a coach. I still think Frost will be involved in what the Huskers do offensively. He'll obviously have a big part this offseason when the new assistants share ideas and develop an identity moving forward. I also expect him to have input during the season when Whipple and the other assistants are putting together weekly game plans for opponents.
But Frost wanted a veteran he could hand the keys to and trust to manage and run the day-to-day of the offense, much like Erik Chinander does with the defense. Whipple can do that. He has 21 years of experience as a college head coach with New Haven (1988-93), Brown (1994-97) and Massachusetts (1998-2003, 2014-18). He was named the Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year in 2003 and the AFCA Division I-AA National Coach of the Year in 1998, the same year he won a national championship with UMass.
He has five years of coordinator experience at the Power Five level. Along with spending the last three seasons as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Pat Narduzzi at Pittsburgh, he was the assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Randy Shannon at the University of Miami (2009-10).
Whipple also brings some NFL experience with him. He was the quarterbacks coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers (2004-06) and Cleveland Browns (2011-12), and an offensive assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2008. He worked directly with Ben Roethlisberger and Donovan McNabb. More impressively, he's coached with some bright offensive minds in the NFL: Andy Reid, Bruce Arians, Ken Whisenhunt, Pat Shurmur, Brad Childress and Marty Mornhinweg, to name a few.
Several names were floated as candidates for the coordinator position, but only three were ever confirmed to have interviewed. Frost reportedly spoke to Robert Anae, right around the time Virginia's head coach, Bronco Mendenhall, decided to step down. The two finalists for the position were Whipple and Graham Harrell, who was at USC at the time. Frost interviewed both of them on Dec. 5.
It was a whirlwind weekend for Whipple. After helping to lead Pitt to an ACC Championship Game win over Wake Forest in Charlotte, North Carolina, Whipple flew across the country to meet with Frost less than 24 hours later in his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. Frost spent the next day, Monday, deciding between Whipple and Harrell. Not standing idle, Whipple spent Monday night on a recruiting visit on behalf of Pitt. Ironically, he was visiting with former Florida State quarterback Chubba Purdy in Gilbert, Arizona, even offering him a scholarship to Pitt.
On Tuesday morning, Dec. 7, Frost offered Whipple the job. By early afternoon, news broke that Whipple had resigned from his job at Pittsburgh. Like Donovan Raiola, Whipple's official hire was announced on Dec. 8. Whipple, who made $476,450 at Pitt this past season, signed a two-year deal and will make $875,000 this year and $900,000 in 2023. He's now the highest-paid Husker assistant in program history.
I've got to admit, I'm a bit conflicted on the decision to hire Whipple. On one hand, you have to be excited based on what he accomplished this past season at Pittsburgh, when his offense was among the nation’s most productive units. The Panthers ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring offense (41.4 ppg, 3rd), total offense (487.9 ypg, 8th), passing offense (337.4 ypg, 8th) and passing efficiency (8th). Pitt scored 40-plus points eight times and went over 50 four times.
Whipple helped develop Kenny Pickett into the ACC Player of the Year, a Heisman Trophy finalist and likely first-round NFL draft pick. The jump Pickett made this year was remarkable. He was generally regarded as a mediocre quarterback prior to this season. After throwing for 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions in both the 2019 and 2020 seasons, he burst onto the national scene and onto NFL radars this year. Pickett set numerous team records this season, passing for 4,319 yards and an ACC-record 42 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. A career 60.4% passer (711 of 1,177) heading into 2021, Pickett connected at a 67.2% clip (334 of 497) this past season.
Whipple has always carried the reputation as a coach who excels at getting the ball to his playmakers, regardless of position. He's always been adept at tailoring his offense to the strengths of those playmakers as well. This past season, Pittsburgh's Jordan Addison won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver after catching 100 passes for 1,593 yards and 17 touchdowns. The true sophomore became Pitt's first consensus All-American wide receiver since Larry Fitzgerald in 2003.
On the other hand, it's been a slow burn for Whipple at Pittsburgh. His offenses made incremental improvements during his first two seasons, but they were far from being prolific. In 2020, Pitt ranked 79th nationally in yards per game (379.6) and 58th in scoring (29 ppg). In 2019, they were 87th nationally in yards per game (380.5) and 114th in scoring (21.2 ppg).
When you look at his cumulative work as a Power Five coordinator, he hasn't exactly stood out. Sure, his offenses at Miami were solid, but they were far from being standout units. In 2009, Miami ranked 45th nationally in yards per game (399.9) and 31st in scoring (30.2 ppg). In 2010, they were 31st nationally in yards per game (421.3) and 68th in scoring (26.2 ppg). Was 2021 an anomaly helped by having an elite QB-WR tandem?
There's also the issue with Whipple's extensive track record for employing a pass-heavy offense. When studying his offense at Pitt and breaking down the film, his system seems better suited for the ACC, Pac-12 or Big 12 conferences. I question whether or not a pass-first scheme like his can consistently win in the Big Ten. Ohio State is the only team in the conference that is a consistent winner while deploying such a prolific passing game. The Buckeyes also had 16 five-star and 49 four-star players on their 2021 roster. Can Nebraska - or anyone else - win in this league being a primarily pass-first offense?
Sure, Pitt ran the ball 48% of the time this past season, but the Panthers ranked 77th nationally in rushing yards per game (149.2) and 84th in ypc (3.98). Whipple has always used the run to set up the pass. Like Frost, he also tends to defer to the passing game in crunch time or during key moments. If Whipple is indeed going to be calling the plays, can we expect him to change his stripes after 40-plus years of being pass-first? He has been criticized throughout his career for not being committed enough to the run. That's a concern.
Then there's the issue with his recruiting. You do have to give credit where it's due. Without Whipple, Nebraska probably isn't landing Casey Thompson and Chubba Purdy in the transfer portal. He parlayed his success with Kenny Pickett and convinced two former four-star players with Power Five starting experience to transfer to the same program. He helped sell the immediate benefits to Thompson and laid out a plan for the future with Purdy.
But the fact remains, he's never been a very enthusiastic recruiter. He's not the sort of coordinator who will grind like Erik Chinander. At a place like Nebraska, where your only inherent disadvantage is proximity to top recruits, that's an issue. Nebraska needs to have all hands on deck in recruiting. If ever a team needed to adopt an SEC approach and vigor toward recruiting, it's Nebraska.
Whipple doesn't feel like the long-term answer at offensive coordinator, regardless of how successful he is in 2022. Like with Raiola, I would have gone in a different direction, but that's certainly not to say that Whipple won't be productive in Lincoln.