Midwest Coast conversion
Callahan's attempted makeover at Nebraska won't happen overnight
Updated: Tuesday January 20, 2004 1:56PM
Upon his recent hiring by Nebraska, Bill Callahan announced his intention to install an NFL-style West Coast offense at college football's traditional shrine to the option.
Not even the Queer Eye guys have attempted a makeover so drastic.
Nebraska's players will be required to do things neither they nor generations of Huskers before them have ever been asked to do. For a statewide legion of demanding diehards, the first couple years could be kind of rough.
"It does not happen overnight," said Notre Dame offensive coordinator Bill Diedrick, whose own team has struggled through a transition from the option to the West Coast offense the past two seasons. "You look at what we were doing our first year here and what we were doing at Stanford, it probably wasn't even 25 percent [of the offense]."
Originally made popular by San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh and passed down by his many coaching proteges, the West Coast offense is all the rage in the NFL these days, and with the recent influx of colleges coaches coming from the NFL, the trend is beginning to spread to campuses.
While any passing offense may seem radical to Nebraska, the West Coast system practiced by Callahan is actually fairly conservative. Its main tenant is a short, high-percentage passing game to control the clock and keep the chains moving. The running game remains a major component.
As simple as that sounds, however, the system is highly complex. There are endless formations, each of them with endless plays, each of them with endless variations. Running backs, fullbacks and tight ends are all utilized as receivers.
"The West Coast offense in general is extremely wordy, a lot of terms, and usually it's much different than most other systems, especially an option system," said Diedrick. "That will be new for everybody."
Diedrick outlined the other major challenges facing the Huskers as such:
"The first thing would be assessing the personnel, who's there, who can fit in to the different positions they're looking for. The next area would probably be the concepts of the offense and the adjustments within them on different plays and routes. That will take a tremendous amount of time to get that to where it's second nature.
"But the major [factor]," said Diedrick, "is the decision maker: the quarterback. He's probably going to be the key to the whole system."
To that end, the Huskers may be in better shape than expected.
Projected starter Joe Dailey, who as a freshman served as Jammal Lord's primary backup last season, has the mobility of an option QB but is considered a much better thrower. In fact, previous head coach Frank Solich recruited Dailey out of New Jersey prep power St. Peter's specifically for the purpose of opening up their passing game.
Dailey is also known to be a studious learner, absorbing Nebraska's old offense during 6 a.m. film sessions his senior year of high school.
"He's a drop-back, three-step quarterback. His forte is throwing the football," said St. Peter's coach Rich Hansen. "Physically, I think his talents fit well with that style offense. It's similar to what he did in high school."
Another plus for Callahan is the presence of a solid pass-catching tight end -- critical to the West Coast offense -- in rising junior Matt Herrian, the Huskers' leading receiver last season with 22 catches for 484 yards.
Where Nebraska will be hurting early on is at the other skill positions.
The West Coast offense relies on speedy receivers who can turn short passes into big gains. Because the position wasn't a priority in the old offense, Nebraska -- with the possible exception of rising sophomore Isaiah Fluellen, who averaged 19.1 yards on 15 catches last season -- simply doesn't have those kind of athletes on hand.
It also remains to be seen whether their running backs can adapt to the added of role of pass-catcher.
On Callahan's 2002 Raiders team that went to the Super Bowl, running back Charlie Garner not only ran for 982 yards but caught 91 passes for another 941. Cory Ross, Nebraska's leading returning rusher, caught two balls all of last season.
With less than three weeks until Signing Day, Callahan and his staff have hit the recruiting road in search of any available talent that better fits their system, contacting such blue-chippers as Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm and Concord (Calif.) De La Salle receiver Cameron Colvin. But most such players aren't likely to consider a new suitor so late in the process.
More realistically, the coaches will focus their efforts on obtaining such talent in next year's class.
"This is still Nebraska, one of the top 10 programs in the country. They still have that allure," said TheInsiders.com recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg. "Next season, they should be able to go out and get the guys they want."
In the meantime, look for Callahan to scale back his system initially. That's what UCLA coach Karl Dorrell did last season in bringing the West Coast offense with him from the Denver Broncos. So did the Irish in breaking in true freshman quarterback Brady Quinn.
The bad news is, those teams both finished below .500 and ranked in the bottom 25 percent nationally in total offense.
"You probably aren't going to see instant [success] overnight," said Diedrick. "Unfortunately, I'm not too sure how patient people at Nebraska will be."
Commissioners for the six BCS conferences met on two occasions at the recent NCAA convention in Nashville, Tenn., discussing both potential changes to next year's rankings system in the wake of this year's LSU/USC debacle as well as the upcoming contract renegotiations with ABC.
Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen said there are three options on the table for revising the rankings: letting the human polls stand alone if there are consensus No. 1 and 2 teams, giving those polls greater emphasis than the computer rankings and/or eliminating the quality win component. Hansen said they'd also like the strength-of-schedule system to distinguish between home and away games.
In the meantime, the Rose Bowl's renegotiation with ABC, slated for the first half of the year, is on hold due to the uncertainty surrounding the BCS' future structure. The Rose Bowl's existing contract is separate from the other three BCS bowls but expires at the same time, after the 2005 season. While the Rose Bowl and its partners, the Big Ten and Pac-10, remain committed to staging a BCS title game, bowl officials aren't thrilled with the possibility of the championship moving to after the bowls as has been widely speculated.
"We're pretty much in the range that's been publicly discussed," said Hansen. "Four games plus either a fifth game played concurrently with them, or the 'plus-one' game, those are the major structural differences we're looking at. Or you could do both. Or there are various subsets within that."
All not well for Dorrell
The ugliness of Karl Dorrell's debut season at his alma mater, in which UCLA lost its last five games to finish 6-7, has spilled over into the offseason.
Dorrell fired two offensive assistants, tight ends coach Gary Bernardi and offensive line coach Mark Weber, on Jan. 2, and coordinator Steve Axman is rumored to be next. The Bruins have also lost three notable offensive contributors in recent weeks, quarterback Matt Moore (transfer), receiver Tab Perry (academics) and tailback Tyler Ebell (transfer).
UCLA's anemic offense scored seven points and gained just 164 yards against Fresno State in the Silicon Valley Bowl.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the negativity is having an effect on recruiting -- Dorrell has failed to land any of the top quarterbacks he targeted and is starting to get desperate. He's also managed to alienate at least one area high school coach, Newhall Hart's Mike Herrington, where Moore once played and where Bernardi's son, an offensive lineman, plays presently.
Huskies' familiar hire
Here's some irony for you: Fired Nevada coach Chris Tormey, whose Wolf Pack stunned Washington 28-17 last season, has joined Huskies coach Keith Gilbertson's staff as linebackers coach.
What's interesting is that Tormey, a former assistant to Washington legend Don James who interviewed for the head coaching job when it went to Rick Neuheisel, would seemingly be a prime candidate to replace Gilbertson if the Huskies have another season as disappointing as last year's.
Embattled AD Barbara Hedges, who hired both Neuheisel and Gilbertson, recently announced her retirement.
Pittsburgh is in danger of losing its two prized commitments, running back Andrew Johnson, who has re-opened his recruitment and is looking at Miami and Ohio State, and quarterback Anthony Morelli, who met with Panthers coach Walt Harris last week to discuss some concerns. ... Mike DeBord, the offensive coordinator on Michigan's 1997 national title team, has returned to Lloyd Carr's staff as special teams and recruiting coordinator following his resignation as head coach at Central Michigan. ... Nebraska offensive coordinator Barney Cotton, one of seven assistants let go by new head coach Bill Callahan, has landed the same position at Iowa State. ... Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of the stars of the bowl season with his performance against Virginia Tech in the Insight Bowl, will miss most of spring practice following knee surgery. ... Miami area linebacker Ali Highsmith, nephew of former Hurricanes great Alonzo Highsmith, is headed to LSU. A 'Canes signee last year, he failed to qualify and spent the fall at community college.
Stewart Mandel covers college sports for SI.com.