When Nebraska offensive coordinator Tim Beck introduced a system that emphasized greater freedom in route running last year, the team's pass-catchers were understandably thrilled.
Who wouldn't be? Unlike many of their college football peers, whose routes are practically scripted down to the millimeter, Nebraska's wide receivers and tight ends had the liberty to identify open zones where they could catch the ball.
The idea sounded great in principle. But like most new concepts, it took some time to execute. With a mostly young receiving corps and an inconsistent quarterback, Nebraska finished 104th nationally in pass offense (162.7 ypg). The Huskers had no players eclipse 500 receiving yards or 35 receptions and just one, freshman Kenny Bell, eclipse 300 yards and 25 catches.
"It's a real hard thing because you think, 'I've got the freedom to run the routes that I believe should be run and in the areas that I believe should be run in,'" Bell told ESPN.com. "But at the same time, you have to know the grand scheme of the entire play. You can't have tunnel vision on what you're doing. You have to know where everybody else is going to be."
Year 2 in the system has given Nebraska's receivers and tight ends a better feel for where one another will be on certain plays. The receivers lose only one major contributor (Brandon Kinnie), and both of the team's top tight ends, Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed, are back for their senior seasons.
Most importantly, quarterback Taylor Martinez is more comfortable with who he'll be targeting.
"This will be our second year together, so we're pretty close," Martinez said. "We know what each other are going to do."
Beck gives every indication he'll emphasize the pass more this season -- Nebraska passed the ball just 32.4 percent of the time (293 of 904 plays) in 2011 -- and feels better about what he has at every position on the offensive side. Last spring, he said he didn't want robots as receivers -- "I'm not in the technology business," he joked -- and wanted his players to just go out and play.
The group is having more fun with its freedom now.
"Their freedom and route recognition of what to run versus certain techniques is better," Beck told ESPN.com. "Their decisions are better of what to do. Therefore, they're more open. Last year, they may not have done that, and so we're expecting a curl and a guy runs a go route because he read it wrong.
"They're understanding that better."
Beck has seen "dramatic improvement" with the receivers during the offseason. Bell, who averaged 14.4 yards per catch in 2011, should fill the No. 1 role. Quincy Enunwa, Jamal Turner and senior Tim Marlowe, who Bell said has the best knowledge of the system and the receiver responsibilities, also return.
Both Cotton and Reed battled injuries in 2011, but they boast 40 career starts between them.
"It goes back to having done this before," Cotton said. "Guys are able to play a lot faster and just play football. We're told, 'You get open, you're going to get the ball.' Guys are really starting to grasp that a lot more, the freedom."