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The evolution of Nebraska Football?

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So many rumors. So many possibilities. As the Husker faithful sit with baited breath, the realization that another major change in Nebraska is about to take place. The realization for some though stops at the coaches, but what the avid Big Red fan should get ready for is that it's not just the faces that will change, but the way the game is played in Lincoln. We are on the verge of an evolution in Nebraska football.

After the 1970s, it was almost ironic in how Tom Osborne took a Nebraska team that resembled the pro-style offenses of today and eventually segued into a smashmouth, heavy run-oriented attack that would be the trademark for Nebraska for the next 30 years.

During that time, philosophies changed somewhat, the biggest was in recruiting. Speed and lots of it, after the 1992 season, Nebraska went for not the best pure players out there, but the best pure players that could flat out fly.

What followed was a run that has never been seen before, Nebraska going 60-3 in 5 years, winning 3 national titles in the next 4 years.

When Osborne left, the ability to get those talented speedsters by the bushel apparently left with him, the Huskers eventually going on a 2 to 3 year skid in getting the kind of players they needed to make this physical style of offense work.

Now, minus a head coach and likely soon to be some additional assistants, it's not just about who's going to take the helm, but what they are going to do to bridge the gap that has been created in the talent disparity between NU and those that have ascended to the level of "elite".

What would seem like an almost inevitable conclusion however when you look at the variety of candidates for the job, it would seem that the Nebraska offense of old will be old news and NU will finally move it's way into the modern world of collegiate football.

If you look at the candidates and yes, even the most ridiculous rumors out there that even had the likes of Steve Spurrier heading to Lincoln to coach, well, I don't see anyone with even the remote possibility of getting the job, that has anything more than maybe a token option play here and there in their entire handbook.

Rich Rodriguez, Urban Meyer, Norm Chow, Jim Grobe and even guys from the pros like Cowher and Gruden, none of them have any sort of affinity to Nebraska's trademark style of play. Even if Bo Pelini were to get the job, there seems to be a consensus that while Barney Cotton may remain as the offensive line coach, his days as O.C. are done.

If that's true, no matter how you look at it, the mentality that most fans have gotten used to where they utter under their breath in frustration 'option right, option left, fullback up the middle', well, you are just going to have to find something new to get irked about, because Nebraska might even pass consecutively and that's when they don't have to.

The Pro-Style offense, the Spread and dare I say, "West Coast" inside the walls of Memorial? I don't think it's safe to rule out anything right now, because you would have to know who the head coach is definitely going to be just to grasp what we might see next year.

There does come the inevitable question and just a fact of life when you decide to switch offensive philosophies. Does Nebraska have the players for that?

Tom Osborne had to go through his growing pains in the early 70s as he moved into a different direction and so to will the new head coach have to find a way to convince Athletic Director, Steve Pederson that getting more than 9 wins right out of the box trying a new way to move the ball down the field, it's just not going to be that easy.

First and foremost you have the offensive line and folks, it doesn't matter what offense Nebraska wants to run, they are going to have problems. Forget the fact that if healthy, they might have a seemingly quality starting line-up in Ryan Schuler, Richie Incognito, Greg Austin, Darren DeLone and Jermaine Leslie. What you have to ask is what comes after that?

Going back to some bad recruiting and bad breaks in recruiting, the offensive line is simply paper thin. Tim Green, done, M.J. Flaum, done and Chris Loos always a question as to whether he can go or not. That's three players that were projected to be starters and in some cases, stars, none of them ever being able to contribute to the team.

That hurts. No, that actually kills. It kills the depth of an offensive line and on a team who's identity starts with that same offensive line and that's where it stops as well. Regardless of health, this offensive line next year will potentially be very good in regards to starters, but after that, NU is going to have some serious issues to address.

Usually when you have this urgent kind of depth issue, that screams JUCO. Raiding the junior colleges for anything they can get that can come in, seal up the depth chart, hopefully add quality to that chart and even start if they turn out to be just that good.

Of course, if Wali Muhammad, Donald DeFrand and Darren DeLone have taught you anything is that, that particular mind-set on junior college players isn't always going to pan out.

Another aspect to a more wide-open style of play and let's face it, compared to the option, the single-wing could have been comparatively "wild", are the receivers. Now, for what Nebraska has done, they have a great group of wideouts. Ross Pilkington, Mark LeFlore, Isaiah Fluellen, Tim Liley, Jack O'Holleran and still more, all have proven themselves to be the template of what a Nebraska receiver is.

Good blocker + good hands = typical Nebraska wideout. Within that you try to sprinkle in as much speed as you can, but if you have a receiver that is consistently solid blocking, they are able to make most of the catches available and are decent route-runners, that's about the perfect fit for the Huskers.

With any of the possible offenses to come to Nebraska, blocking is always a must, but not quite as emphasized as it would be with the option. Also, like defense, speed kills. Guys that can really stretch the field and can use that speed to create separation. However, if they don't have sheer acceleration to pull away, you compensate for that with guys that can either physically create separation at the line of scrimmage or are just exceptional route-runners.

Again, that will take some time for NU players to adjust and for Nebraska to get in the stereotype of what is expected within a certain offensive scheme.

Ok, what about those running backs? Aside from recent years, being a Nebraska back has been oh-so-sweet, gaining seven yards before anyone would even touch you. That was a mark against them as they went to the pros, some believing that because of how good they had it at NU, they didn't know how to actually work for their yards in the big leagues. Not so recently, but that has as much to do with the backs themselves as the performance of the offensive line.

The one fallacy about what a running back is, is usually derived from their size. 6'2" & 215-230 lbs., fans drool at the thought of what a versatile playmaker with that kind of size can do. That's the key though in that playmakers don't come in cookie cutter templates. Either they are or they aren't. You can look at the recent success of a back like Cory Ross to see that size doesn't matter and worry more about what that back can do versus what their build allegedly allows them to do in the course of a game.

Often, what any one back can do will be based on what defenses are offering up, either in the way of a fast-attacking style predicated on velocity more than stature and then, you get other defenses like Colorado's that are built to stop things at the line of scrimmage.

There's no recipe for a perfect I-back in any system. They can or can't. It's that simple.

The fullback play of Nebraska from Willie Miller to today has been a regression in the overall output at what was once a key position for Nebraska. Who can forget the 6.25 yards per carry for an entire year by Joel Makovicka on top of the fact that not once did he have a run for a loss that season. Add yet more with an ability to be a devastating and consistent blocker along with being able to catch balls out of the backfield, you could say NU was spoiled, but "Mack" wasn't the only one that fit this mold.

From a Fullback that could do it all to fullbacks that can't do much at all, one of the most vital positions on the field in regards to an option running game eventually became almost moot.

While the fullback isn't as intrinsically part of the pro-style offense as you would assume they are with the option, many times, what that fullback can do will dictate what that offense does with them. You have only to look at fullbacks like Mike Alstott and of course, Corey Schlesinger to see what you ideally want from your FB and a more conventional mode of putting plays together on the field. At the very least though, Nebraska will have to have a FB that can block and be some sort of threat to run and catch balls out of the backfield if the Big Red is going to get production from everyone on the offensive side.

At tight end, if Nebraska can keep getting guys like Matt Herian, they are golden. Guys with speed, pretty good hands (he's alligator-armed a few this year) and the size to build almost another lineman, Herian is the template you would like to be able to use for the rest of the group that follows him. He fits any system at all.

And now, the QB position and everyone wants to know how a QB fits that system, most definitely because of how out of place Jammal Lord was in the system he attempted to run this last season. If your QB can't pass consistently, your consistently dangerous passing attack is a pipe-dream at best.

So, what does Joe Dailey have to offer and can he bridge the gap as the Nebraska offense evolves? Actually, Dailey could be that bridge as his style of play in high school wasn't a runner that passed, but a passer that could run when needed.

Point of fact, everyone knows that Joe was recruited to help NU move into the more prominent world of "balance" because of what he brought to the field. A young man that could pass well on the run, had the arm to throw against his own momentum the other way if needed and sit in the pocket if need be. Dailey is the real deal in at least what kind of skills he has. He can pass and consistently. All he needs is time. Dailey fits the future of the Nebraska offense, but his versatility will allow that offense to be just about anything this side of the fun 'n gun and he should be just fine.

So, when you add all this up, what does it mean for Nebraska? Can they make the segue to a new more "modern" way of getting down the field and putting points on the board? The question isn't about whether NU can or can't, it's a matter of when you expect it to happen.

On offense, even completely healthy, Nebraska is almost anemic in it's depth regardless of what offense you want to run. When you take into account that they are probably short in a few areas as far as the specific type of skill position players in making a full transition, if you want instant success, pick up your playstation controller, because that's the only realistic place you will find it.

You have to feel the excitement for so many reasons concerning the future of Nebraska football. A new head coach, a new offensive philosophy and a whole new set of expectations for the fan base of the Big Red.

Of course, you can tell Husker fans that things will be different. You can tell them that in some aspects, NU might literally be starting over from scratch. And, you can tell them that you just don't have the talent, the speed and the depth to get everything you want done, accomplished right away.

You can tell them all that and you know what? They'll still be ticked if you don't win nine games this year.

As Nebraska may change, the Husker faithful never will and, that's probably a good thing in the end. It's only when you don't expect much that you know you've truly failed.

Steve Ryan can be reached at huskerconnection@neb.rr.com or 402-730-5619

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