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Building blocks

Huskers' makeover hasn't been easy, but they're recruiting plenty of help

Posted: Wednesday November 3, 2004 1:06PM; Updated: Wednesday November 3, 2004 1:06PM
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Brandon Jackson
Brandon Jackson and the Nebraska offense hasn't exactly been clicking on all cylinders this season.
AP

It's been nearly one year since Frank Solich's unceremonious expulsion from Nebraska.

In Solich's place came former Raiders head coach Bill Callahan, and with him, enthusiasm that many Nebraska fans, despite their best attempts, couldn't temper. By springtime, the words of one Lincoln businessman, with whom I stood in line at the airport after a visit to Callahan's first official practice, summed up the mood: "My brain tells me that this is going to be a transitional year," he said. "But my heart is saying that we're headed back to the Big 12 championship."

Turns out, in this Bizarro World season, both were prophetic. With a road win over Iowa State on Saturday, a 5-3 Huskers team (3-2 in Big 12 play) will be in the driver's seat in an astoundingly mediocre North Division. But if ever there was a team that is looking forward to the future, it's Nebraska, where the conversion to Callahan's West Coast offense has been about as painless and natural as an episode of Extreme Makeover.

Through eight games, Nebraska is ranked 68th nationally in total offense, with 363.0 yards per game. More worrisome, the Huskers are 117th -- as in dead last -- in opponent interceptions, coughing up 17. Quarterback Joe Dailey, whose athletic gifts and obvious determination can't make up for an utter lack of synchronicity with his receivers, was 4-for-17 passing for 26 yards in a 24-3 win over Missouri last week. Without their improving defense, the Huskers might be keeping company with the Kansas teams at the bottom of the division.

Where does that leave Nebraska fans? While a few called for Callahan's head after a 70-10 loss to Texas Tech on Oct. 9, an optimistic "Wait 'Til Next Year" chorus is growing.

According to recruiting analysts, Callahan and his coaches quietly are doing a bang-up job on the recruiting front. Led by defensive line coach John Blake, the former Oklahoma coach who was responsible for hooking several members of the Sooners' national title-winning team, Nebraska is one of just nine teams with multiple top-100 prospects according to the latest rankings by Rivals.com. Scout.com's Allen Wallace says that Nebraska already has six four-star prospects, an unusually high number at this stage in the recruiting game.

"There is a trust there that Callahan will bring Nebraska back to its stature of old," Wallace said. "In the past 10 years, only two Nebraska recruiting classes have been in the top 10 in my book, but this is shaping up to be one of the better looking groups out there."

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The trick, of course, will be turning that talent into the sort of dominant performances that athletic director Steve Pederson envisioned when he traded in old friend Solich for the flash-and-dash of the new regime. Much was made, upon Callahan's hiring, about the adaptability of the coach's spread system to various personnel types. If it's slow going with college athletes, it should be at least equally arduous with incoming freshmen. Despite the pat labels -- pro-style, etc. -- that the recruiting Web sites assign to quarterback prospects, "no high school kid," pointed out Wallace, "is truly conversant in the West Coast offense."

Additionally, there is no promise that stellar recruiting will automatically translate into championships anytime soon, or anytime, period. If consensus top-five recruiting classes guaranteed quick success, Florida wouldn't be undergoing its second head-coaching search in three years right now.

Still, coaches say that it is a simpler task to program fresh minds, and for that matter, attitudes. To that point, among the most optimistic Huskers fans are the recruits themselves.

"They've shown flashes of just how good that offense can be," Countryside High (Clearwater, Fla.) quarterback Harrison Beck, who committed to NU over the summer, told the Lincoln Journal-Star in early September. "I think each week they're going to get better and sharper. Every once in a while, you'll see Joe [Dailey] bust off a big-time throw. But with that offense, it's going to take time for any quarterback. He'll still be learning things when he's a senior."

Until Beck's own tutorial begins, Nebraska will soldier on; with Dailey, whose pick-free performance against Missouri might be seen as progress, and without tight end Matt Herian, who was leading the team in receptions before he broke his leg against Missouri.

The Huskers can't yet expect victories over teams such as Oklahoma, which they will face on No. 13 and likely again on Dec. 4 for the Big 12 championship. What they can ask for, at this point, is a little more patience.

Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.

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