Lessons learned, Spring football starts today

Typical to his media savvy presence, Nebraska head coach Bill Callahan took to the pre-Spring press conference as he had with so many others: He's almost like a hustler, this head coach and I mean that in a good way. Calm, cool, collected, but very conscious of what he has to do. The question is now, with a year under his belt, will that do any good? Well, I'll tell you.

If that horse isn't dead, it's close. No, actually, it's dead, no doubt about it.


The "this isn't a west coast team" arguments that drowned the senses amidst a year that was mostly forgettable.


Actually, it wasn't forgettable and that's the problem, because how can anyone forget a season the likes of which some have never seen?


And honestly, just how much difference can a different offense make?


I'll you how and I'll speak to something I know a little more about:




If someone is a good straight pool shooter, you'd think that they would excel in every pool game there is. Eight-ball, Nine-ball, slop counts or call your pocket.


That's not true, because if you just look at the difference between eight ball and nine ball, mentally, you have to have a different approach.


In eight-ball, you shoot either stripes or solids, with the eight-ball being your eventual goal, sinking that in after you have made all of your balls first.


In nine-ball, you make the balls in succession, one thru nine, the person that pockets the nine after all the others have been pocketed, obviously being the winner.


What's the difference? Yeah, shooting is still shooting and shape is still shape, so both games should be played exactly the same. But, it's how you approach the game mentally that matters and trust me, those two games are very different.


Offenses in football are the same way. The idea behind the goal is pretty simple: Take the ball, get to the other end of the field and cross the goal line with the ball in your possession.


Yeah, simple. Whether you do that passing, throwing or both, it doesn't matter, moving the ball will always be moving the ball.


Ok, not so much.


If that was true, there would have never been a need for the "Single Wing", nor would the "T" formation have as dramatic effect as it did when it debuted in the early forties.


It's not rocket science, though, to look at some of the playbooks, you'd think it's close, but the basic principle is getting from point A to point B, you're just doing it in a different way.


That brings us to last year, a year in which that way was changed and dramatically. You've got players that were used to drive-blocking three-fourths of the time, pass-blocking rarely and even then, it was often out of a play that made the other team at least think you were still running the ball.


Then, you have running backs that had become very accustomed to hitting moving gaps in front of pulling offensive line, knowing that timing was everything and you had to hit a certain gap at a certain time or the play was going to break down.


Quarterbacks that were used to running before throwing, wide receivers that were used to blocking before actually catching a ball and a tight ends that actually blocked.


That's not just a different philosophy, it's an entirely different mind-set. I'm not a neurologist, psychologist or even hypnotist, but I'd say that 30 practices just isn't enough to break habits built up over years.


Well, it's those 30 practices, plus an entire season from last year now and the biggest question is, what kind of difference can you expect to see.




Now, don't start expecting 300 yards in the air per game and 200 on the ground, but you should be able to expect some significant improvements in some key areas:


Passing: As Callahan stated in the pre-spring press conference, Nebraska was amongst the worst in the country at giving the ball to the other guy. 19 interceptions for Joe Dailey benefited defenses and stymied offensive drives and opportunities.


No matter who is taking the helm this year, however, that should be different because one, Dailey will have had an entire off-season to figure out what he couldn't figure out most of the entire 2004 season and two, the receivers will have a much better idea of what they are supposed to be doing and when.


It can't be understated how important it is that both positions do their job as Dailey may have technically thrown 19 interceptions last year, but you can put the blame as much on those he's throwing to as him for many of those.


With a year of understanding, running and repeating the philosophies within the context of the west coast offense, we should see significant differences, even as early as this Spring.


Running: You have to give the offensive line credit for doing something that not even their head coach thought they could do. Callahan admitted after the season that he thought the bigguns up front would be the weak link of the team and as it turned out, they were anything but.


So, what can a line, even with the loss of two starters, expect to do now that the players have a better understanding?


Well, the better question is, what can Cory Ross do?


You see, the line did help Ross to be the first 1,000 yard rusher NU has had in a few years, but if you watched the games, you know that with a turf toe hampering him most of the year, Ross still made many yards on his own.


With him healthy, the line healthy and a better understanding of everything, here's another area that should see some definite upgrades in potential.


Ok, so the offense should be markedly better, but what about a defense that was as Callahan said, "horrendous" in some areas?


That's probably going to be the bigger unknown, but logic would tell you that like the offense, the familiarity will help the defense as well.


Ok, not so much.


Change is good, but it was akin to a disaster last year as a secondary touted in the pre-season as one of the best in the country turned out to be one of the worst.


That kind of performance couldn't be attributed just to a lack of familiarity to the system, hence some rather significant changes in the off-season.


Gone is the mostly "man" coverage that replaced the "zone" coverage the year before and now, it's back to zone. Also, Phil Elmassian that coached the entire secondary last year, a unit he called the worst he'd been a part of in his 20-plus years of coaching, well, he's been reassigned of sorts, now coaching just the cornerbacks, the safeties now belonging to Bill Busch, who is relinquishing his duties as outside linebacker coach, the entire LB core falling under defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove.


And, from what Callahan said in the press conference, there's going to be a massive adjustment in limiting the defensive package, getting rid of (for now) many of the "pressures" within that package and simplifying everything to the extent that it's going to be just like starting over again.


The familiarity, at least for all parties involved other than the junior college players that arrived in January is the only thing that this group is bringing back, but that's something that also can't be understated.


Going from the temperament of former secondary coach Marvin Sanders to that of Phil Elmassian, well, it's a lot like going from Evian to Everclear. It was obvious that, that adjustment wasn't easy for some to make and realistic to assume that some never made it at all. So, at least this year, everyone knows what to expect.


That's about where the familiarity ends, though, because, due to the nature of the changes, if they are indeed as significant as they appear, this unit could look vastly different from last years.


That's a good thing.


The leaves us with one of the sorest subjects that Nebraska has had to cover over the off-season: special teams.


They were anything but.


Outside of a late surge at kickoff returns thanks to Brandon Jackson and Sam Koch's typically dependable performances, the entire unit managed to disappoint, despair and self-destruct.


You can bet that the coaches are looking for a punt return game that actually returns punts, a kickoff coverage unit that actually covers and when they line up for extra points and field goals, nobody feels the need to start sacrificing chickens, to try and get them all to go through.


The good news behind all this and yes, there is good news:


These are problems the coaching staff saw happen, which means they know how to fix them.


That's what a season gives you, regardless of how badly it went. You know where to start and today, that's just what they will do. They knew what one unit did wrong, what one unit did right and just where the fine-tuning or overhauling needs to take place.


Back to the pool analogy, it's like coming into a rack of balls that's already been busted and a couple of balls have been dropped. If you weren't there for the break, you don't know who is what or what you have to do next.


That's where they were last year, more or less. This time around, it's a new game, a new rack, but now they know how the table rolls.


There's a lot of reasons to be negative, if you choose to look at a team that can't or won't get any better. I would choose to look at the positive, because they really don't have any choice. It's a new year, but it's a second year for the staff. If just for that reason, Nebraska will be better, but we'll have to wait to see how much.


Ok, wait's over. The fun begins today.



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