This is not your grandfather's Nebraska football team. Hell, it's not even your twin brother's. A former college football dynasty that once lived -- and recently showed signs of dying -- by its one-dimensional yet oft-devastating option attack is now learning to (shudder) pass block.
Things changed nearly overnight in Lincoln last December when Husker coach Frank Solich was canned after a 9-3 season and former Oakland Raider boss Bill Callahan took the Nebraska job despite being third on the so-called short list. Now, the last major D-I program to embrace the forward pass is learning to love Callahan's West Coast offense that opens up the running game by emphasizing a steady diet of short, controlled passes.
"I feel totally confident in what we're implementing and what we've achieved so far," Callahan said. "Our players have been tremendous about being open and resilient and being in position to allow the new staff to come in and implement what we have done. I've learned in the NFL that you can learn so much from your players, and I've learned quite a bit in the short time I've been here. These guys are born and bred in the Nebraska tradition. I'm leaning on our players and our seniors to make this go."
The 2004 season is one of transition. It's been more than three decades since the pass was emphasized in Lincoln. What's more, Nebraska has had three offensive and three defensive coordinators in three seasons. Coaches and players are still learning each other's names. Road trips to Oklahoma, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Pittsburgh loom.
"Bringing it (West Coast offense) into college football is a real challenge," Callahan said. "I can't make any guarantees or promises that it's gong to take off and lead the league in total offense because it is predicated on a lot of different levels. It's hard to predict how we'll do in the first year with the transition. I'm confident because I'm a confident person in terms of teaching this system."
While the scheme is associated with the passing game, the intent is to effect a balanced offense in a program known for anything but. Last year, Nebraska's ground game ranked No. 7 nationally (235.6 ypg) but its passing attack was No. 114 (out of 117 Division-I programs) when it averaged just 109 yards through the air.
"The system itself is predicated on balance," Callahan said. "Its uniqueness is to keep defenses off-balance with a balanced approached. To put a number to (the rush-pass ratio) is tough to do. Each opponent and each contest that you engage takes on a life of its own. It's completely different in every respect. I look at it game by game."
The first game that Cornhusker had a chance to look at the newfangled scheme was during the annual spring game last April. Then, you would have thought that the Children of the Corn were filling the stadium to witness a freak show.
"We had 60,000 people at our spring game," junior TE Matt Herian said. "They were all questioning what we're going to do because they had not seen an offense like this. Even when I'm walking around with my friends and family everyone is asking me, 'What are you guys going to do? What has changed?' I think a lot of people at Nebraska are real curious. I think at first they had a hard time adjusting because we are traditionally a running football team. We won running the football. We didn't have to pass it that much."
Which means, of course, that the Cornhuskers rarely had to pass-block.
"(Pass-blocking) is challenging and it's a tough skill to master," Callahan said. "Even the best players that I've been around in the NFL can't master it completely. As a youngster you don't go into your backyard and say, 'Let's do a one-on-one pass blocking drill.'"
Callahan praised his players for embracing the scheme but, even so, the biggest question is whether Nebraska now has the personnel to effectively implement this newfangled offense. The quarterback situation is very much unsettled as the 'Huskers look to August camp. The battle for top signal-caller is shaping up as a battle between sophomore Joe Dailey or junior Mike Stuntz.
"We'd like to establish a quarterback to take over the reigns," Callahan said. "The quarterback is the most important part of or offense. Everything is centered on the quarterback position. We'd like to go into the season with a quarterback and work from that point on. We've got great competition. We want someone to emerge at the end of training camp."
Despite the new approach and the relentless expectations of the Nebraska fan base, Callahan said he experiences little pressure as he transitions into the college game.
"The way I look at it, you either apply pressure or you feel pressure," he said. "I've been one to apply pressure to get this program back to where the program has been historically and it is an awesome responsibility. I can't wait to jump out of bed early, and get to work and get Nebraska back to where it's always been."
COLORADO LOOKS PAST 'SCANDAL', TOWARD 2004 SEASON
Before Colorado coach Gary Barnett fielded a single question from reporters Thursday, he tried to set the boundaries for what he was willing to discuss on the heels of his program's alleged use of sex and drugs to lure blue-chip recruits. Still, it was nearly all that anyone wanted to talk about Thursday as the Buffs coach wrapped up the annual Big 12 Football Media Days event in Kansas City.
"I don't have a lot of interest in what's going on behind us," he said. "Our focus is on the future and where we want to go as a football team. This is a very focused football team that has learned how to not get distracted. It's been a great learning opportunity for all of us."
The "learning opportunity' included his program's reaction to federal lawsuits filed by women who said that Colorado players raped them.
"I'd like to officially not acknowledge the word 'scandal' and not have that word dealt with here," Barnett went on to say. "I refuse to acknowledge that as the proper word to describe it."
During the, uh, not-scandal, Barnett was placed on administrative leave last spring and temporarily relieved of his post by inside linebackers coach Brian Cabral. Yet, Barnett insists he never backed off from full responsibility as the Buffaloes head man.
"Every day I had a responsibility to work as hard as our players were working to get better," he said. "Hopefully, I did that. I took every day as a chance to learn something. How I am going to use that, I'm not sure. I have a wealth of information to draw upon. Whether I use it in the right way or not, we'll have to wait and see. What I've learned for myself is how important friends are, the importance of the encouragement from peers is, and how important email is. I got 10-to-12 positive emails that I woke up to and which encouraged me throughout the day. I learned that what happened wasn't terminal, and that what happened the next day wasn't terminal, either. It reinforces that if you take one day at a time, one hour at a time, and focus on that period of time, you can get through absolutely anything."
There was a moment during Thursday's press conference when, after a reporter asked if Barnett anticipated future restrictions in his authority as the ordeal continues to unfold, the head coach lowered his head and was silent for what seemed like an eternity. At this point, you didn't know if Barnett was going to yell, or cry, or refrain from further questioning. Finally, he replied, with this rambling response:
"You can look at 117 different schools and every head coach in a Division-I program has a different level of power and control of the program. (He then cited a comment from USC coach Pete Carroll who believed he could only be successful in Los Angeles because, there, he had complete control relative to other places). Coming to Colorado from Northwestern, the level of control, or power, and I don't know if that's the right word... I knew what that level would be at Colorado. I don't think at this point in time it has changed. I don't think I'll know that until decisions I was able to make in the past are presented to me, and either I make them or not make them."
Coaches attempted to shield players from the brunt of the national media feeding frenzy that resulted after allegations continued to surface, Barnett said, who then let a couple of his star athletes speak for themselves.
"It really doesn't affect me at all," senior RB Bobby Purify said. "It was kind of hectic the first week or two because we didn't know what was going on. I finally ignored it because I was tired of hearing it. I'm taking it all in stride and I think the whole team feels the same way."
Junior QB Joel Klatt echoed the sentiments before adding, "We know we're under the microscope. There are few chances in a team's life, or in a man's life, to be under the microscope and to be watched as closely as we are. We're excited for the challenge."
When talk finally shifted around to football, it centered on the CU offense which had become quite anemic in 2003. A ground game once renowned for its smash-mouth offense averaged just 93.5 yards rushing (NCAA No. 113) last season. Losing Purify for most of the year due to an ankle injury significantly impeded the ground game, Barnett said, before promising improvement.
"We will be able to run the ball the way we did in 2001 and 2002, meaning the physical nature of the running game," he said. "We were not a very physical running team last year for a number of reasons, all of which I think we corrected and fixed. I look at our offensive line, our returning running backs and fullbacks, and our tight ends: we're good there and we've got good depth there. It looks good on paper."
Meanwhile, Colorado's utter lack of experienced wide receivers makes Texas' pass-catchers look like seasoned veterans. Things will only get worse if WR Jeremy Bloom is deemed ineligible after pursuing a pro skiing career.
"We are proceeding as if we're not going to have Jeremy at this time," Barnett said. "We didn't have him in the spring. It just means someone else has a chance to be a go-to guy like Jeremy. It would be a tremendous addition if we get Jeremy but we just don't know what's going to happen."
Much could have been made of the Buffs' defense that surrendered 432.1 ypg (NCAA No. 97) last season but, apparently, reporters felt as if Barnett had been through enough. As such, Barnett chose to accentuate the positive in picking up the pieces at a program that played in the Big 12 title game in both 2001 (beating Texas) and 2002.
"At the end of spring ball, we grew as a team not only emotionally and psychologically but we also physically emerged as a stronger and better football team," Barnett said. "In the long run, it has strengthened the rest of us that are still there."
Texas plays at Colorado on October 30.
KANSAS: I DON'T THINK WE'RE IN LAST PLACE ANYMORE, TOTO
First the good news: Kansas went bowling last year for the first time since 1995. The bad news is the program endured another losing season, finishing 6-7 after N.C. State dismantled the Jayhawks (56-26) in the Tangerine Bowl. Even so, it represents a step forward from the 2-10 record in 2002, noted KU coach (and former Oklahoma assistant) Mark Mangino.
"We still have to recruit hard and aggressively," Mangino said. "However, doors are opening that were slammed in our face years ago. The players see success, and they start to realize what they can do. I think we're on track, with this program in place. In some places, we're ahead of schedule. Strength and conditioning is important to me, and right now that aspect is as good as any place I've been. I like the schemes we have. We have good teachers. We had some good victories last year."
The biggest win was Kansas' 35-14 triumph over arch rival Missouri. It was part of a four-game winning streak that would have reached six were it not for the Jayhawk's 50-47 overtime loss at Colorado.
"We tell ourselves that no one game will make us and no one game will break us," Mangino said. "We're very happy with our progress."
Much of the progress has been offensively. KU has generated 9,280 yards of total offense the past two seasons and set 12 offensive school records in 2003. Thing is, QB Bill Whittemore had a major hand in that offensive uprising but has now completed his eligibility. The QB battle is shaping up as a contest between 6-4 sophomore Adam Barmann and junior Jason Swanson.
"Adam is very talented and he's got a strong arm," Mangino said. "He has a great deal of potential, but he's still learning. Jason will be competing for the starting spot as well. Adam will have the edge going into camp. He has played some and knows the system. Jason is not to be discounted, however."
Apparently, neither should be the Jayhawks.
Texas travels to Kansas on November 13.