Monday, April 16, 2007

Nebraska Spring Football Preview


After a five-year absence, Nebraska was back in the Big XII Championship in 2006. Granted, they got walloped by OU, but ask any Nebraska fan, and this was just a sign of things to come. Whether or not it actually is, has yet to be determined.

The 2006 Husker offense best represented what was expected all along from Bill Callahan. Nebraska rushed the ball about 40 times per game, and though their rushing attack didn’t threaten to break any records, when it was clicking, it opened up the passing game and made Zac Taylor’s job pretty easy.

The “Big Red is back!” talk peaked somewhere around the 4th quarter of the Texas game on October 21. At that point, NU was 6-1 (with only a road loss to USC) and leading the Longhorns. However, Texas came back to win, 22-20, and Nebraska was simply above average from then on out. Home wins against Missouri and Colorado, a road loss to Oklahoma State, and a narrow road win against ATM set the stage for the 9-3 Huskers to face a surprising Oklahoma team in the Big XII Championship. Nebraska lost, 21-7 (it really didn’t ever seem that close), then lost in the Cotton Bowl to Auburn. The 17-14 loss was highlighted by two things a) Nebraska holding its own physically against an athletic Auburn team, and b) Bill Callahan getting horrifically outcoached. That ended a 9-5 Husker season.

In all, NU’s offense tailed off over the last four games of the season, but not enough to keep Zac Taylor from winning the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year award and Nebraska from having their most successful season since Frank Solich was fired (for, ironically, winning only nine games).

Key Returnees

Nebraska lost two key contributors on offense—QB Zac Taylor and RB Brandon Jackson. Taylor was the award-winner, but he was nothing if Jackson wasn’t running (and catching) the ball well. We’ve all heard everything we need to hear about Sam Keller, Taylor’s likely replacement, but replacing Jackson will be the major key to the Huskers’ success. Marlon “Four Heismans” Lucky injured his knee in the spring game (though it’s likely a minor injury) and spent part of the offseason in the hospital for undisclosed reasons, and backup Kenny Wilson is out for the season already. It’s also been a while since Cody Glenn was 100% healthy.

In other words, RB is a huge question mark for Nebraska.

The WR position, however, is not. Maurice Purify is underrated, and along with Terrence Nunn, Nate Swift, Frantz Hardy and Todd Peterson, Callahan finally has the receiving resources available to run the offense he’s always envisioned. The O-line has key cogs returning as well; the unit showed improvement in 2006, though I still wouldn’t label this one of the better O-lines in the conference. We’ll see what another year of experience does.

As for the defense...there were losses galore. Like seemingly every other team in the conference, the Defensive End position is a question mark, as NU will have to replace both Adam Carriker and Jay Moore. The interior of the D-Line should be solid, as Ndamukong Suh looks like he could be a star. At LB, somehow Bo Ruud and Corey McKeon both have eligibility remaining. I could have sworn they were both seniors last year, but whatever. The secondary’s success will depend on JUCO transfers. Rarely is that a good thing, but you never know. It looks like Zackary Bowman will once again miss significant time due to a knee injury, and though the Huskers are expecting him to be ready to play at some point this season, how often do guys come back from multiple knee injuries to play at a super-high level?

One thing that could jump up and bite NU is special teams. Nebraska was averaging in the punting and return categories last year, but they had a steady kicker in Jordan Congdon (he didn’t have a booming leg, but he was steady within his range). Well, Congdon transferred, so this could be a mediocre unit all around.

Spring Developments

I complained last week about how some schools just don’t have much in regard to Spring Football coverage. Well...needless to say, that is not the case with Nebraska. There are plenty of good outlets for Husker football. This Journal Star article is a good, concise summary of NU’s spring goings-on. The main storyline, of course, was the QB battle. Sam Keller seemed strong throughout the spring, but he’s gotten a nice battle from Joe Ganz, whose physical non-prowess is balanced out by his strong grasp of the West Coast offense. You have to figure Keller wins the job in the fall, but Ganz is putting up a fight.

On defense, the story was the retooled D-line. Not only does NU have to replace four starters, but they also had to replace their D-line coach. Suh looks like a stud, but all the other positions are still a bit up in the air. NU seems pretty high on Ty Steinkuhler, who is roughly the 194th Steinkuhler to play for Nebraska. If the D-line can’t find consistency, the strong LB corps will be neutralized. And considering the secondary is every bit as shaky as the D-line, this might not be a wonderful season for the Black Shirts.

Fun With Numbers

As discussed previously, here were the five statistical categories that were most directly related to NU’s success/failure last year:

1. Rushing Yards
2. 3rd Down Conversion Ratio
3. Rushing Attempts
4. Pass Completion %
5. 3rd Down Conversion Rate

I’ve been tinkering with numbers a lot recently, and no matter how I look at it, the rushing offense is absolutely vital for NU’s success. Marlon Lucky needs to be a) healthy and b) every bit as good as he was supposed to be when he arrived in Lincoln if the Huskers are going to be successful. The passing offense should be strong with Keller throwing to Purify, etc., but that won’t matter if the running game isn’t a threat.

A fun schedule awaits Nebraska in 2007. A trip to Winston-Salem (where Wake Forest will look to duplicate last year’s unprecedented success...though I doubt they will) follows a tricky season opener against Nevada. After that comes (I assume) the College Gameday crew for a September 15 game against USC. Assuming NU’s 2-0, that could be a matchup of two Top Ten teams. NU will get to ease into the Big XII schedule, as three of their first four games are at home. They should find themselves 3-1 (I’m counting their road game in Columbia a loss, dammit!) heading to the back end of the schedule. They finish with three of four on the road, but only the trip to Austin is too daunting. They will probably need to avoid tripping up at Boulder or Lawrence to have a shot at the North title. In all, I’m think 8-4/5-3 is the most likely scenario for a team with this many question marks (RB, DL, DB, special teams, Callahan), but I’m admittedly biased against the Huskers (what Tiger fan isn’t?). I really don’t think Nebraska is back in elite territory, but I’ve been wrong before.