Nebraska Cornhuskers 2002 preview
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Coach and Program | Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers/tight ends | Offensive Line | Kickers | Defensive Line | Linebackers | Defensive backs | Punters | Special teams | Recruiting Class | Blue Ribbon analysis
COACH AND PROGRAM For 19 years, Frank Solich served as an assistant at Nebraska, waiting for what would eventually come on Dec. 10, 1997. Solich got his dream job when he was hired as the Cornhuskers head coach. Solich was a fullback for Huskers under Hall of Fame coach Bob Devaney and lettered from 1963-65. He was the first Husker back to rush for 200 yards in a game and is still the only fullback to do so. After graduating from Nebraska in 1966, Solich coached high school football for 14 years, then joined the Huskers staff as freshman coach in 1979 and posted a 19-1 record over four seasons. It was a taste of Huskers football and Solich liked it.
COACH AND PROGRAM
For 19 years, Frank Solich served as an assistant at Nebraska, waiting for what would eventually come on Dec. 10, 1997.
Solich got his dream job when he was hired as the Cornhuskers head coach. Solich was a fullback for Huskers under Hall of Fame coach Bob Devaney and lettered from 1963-65. He was the first Husker back to rush for 200 yards in a game and is still the only fullback to do so.
After graduating from Nebraska in 1966, Solich coached high school football for 14 years, then joined the Huskers staff as freshman coach in 1979 and posted a 19-1 record over four seasons. It was a taste of Huskers football and Solich liked it.
For the next 15 years, Solich coached the Huskers running backs, but he was also promoted to assistant head coach in 1991.
As the right-hand man under head coach Tom Osborne, Solich was a spokesman for the team and program, often representing the team in NCAA Big Eight and Big 12 conferences and media gatherings.
When Osborne decided to retire, Solich was an obvious choice for the job.
Despite a rash of injuries in his first year as the head coach, Solich still posted a 9-4 record in 1998, joining Devaney and Osborne as the only first-year Nebraska coaches to win nine games in his first season.
His second team went 12-1, won the conference title and finished No. 2 in the national rankings.
It is a program and coaching staff that is a model of continuity.
While defensive coordinator Charlie McBride retired after the 1999 season, the rest of the staff that coached under Osborne remains intact. Solich and four other members of coaching staff played for Nebraska.
They are coaching one of the nations most successful programs, the third winningest of all time. In the last 32 seasons, however, no team has a better winning percentage than Nebraska, which is 330-60-5 in that span (.842).
The Huskers have posted 40 consecutive winning seasons and have a record 33 straight nine-win seasons. When the Huskers went to the Rose Bowl last year, it was their 33rd straight bowl appearance, an NCAA record. It was their 19th major bowl in 21 years.
Without a doubt, the biggest void left in the offense is at quarterback. You cant easily replace a guy who won the Heisman, the Walter Camp Player-of-the-Year Award, and the Davey OBrien Quarterback Award.
Eric Crouch brought home all those awards, becoming the third Heisman winner, the third Walter Camp winner, and the first Davey OBrien winner in school history. He became the 13th Division I quarterback to ever rush for 1,000 yards in a season, gaining 1,115 yards last season. He also passed for 1,510 yards, completing 55.6 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
Crouch, chosen by St. Louis in the third round of the NFL draft, was the teams second-leading rusher, averaging 5.5 yards per carry, and led the team with 18 rushing touchdowns.
Nebraska enters the 2002 season with a new starting quarterback for the first time since the 1998 season.
"Whoever is out there on Aug. 24 will either be a player with no experience or with limited experience," Solich said in the spring.
The likely starter will be junior Jammal Lord (6-2, 210), who played limited snaps as Crouchs backup last season. Lord played in six games and completed 5-of-8 passes for 63 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.
Mike Stuntz (6-1, 200), a sophomore who played wingback last season, and freshman Curt Dukes (6-1, 205) were battling for the backups job in the spring.
Lord apparently secured the starting job in the spring. In the second major scrimmage he was sharp, completing 8-of-12 passes for 97 yards and one touchdown.
Lord played sparingly in the spring game, throwing incomplete passes on his only two attempts.
Still, he had solidified his hold on the job early in the spring.
Dukes came to Nebraska in January of 2002 after graduating early from Newton-Conover High School in Stony Point, N.C. He threw a 13-yard touchdown pass in the spring game.
With Crouch gone, senior I-back Dahrran Diedrick (6-0, 225) will likely carry more of a rushing load. Why? Because Crouch was more than just a quarterback.
"There was no question that Eric was our best running back, so we used him as a quarterback and running back," Solich said.
Crouch and Diedrick gave the Huskers a great one-two punch. Diedrick led the Big 12 in rushing with 1,299 yards and scored 15 rushing touchdowns, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. His 118.1 yards per game average ranked 18th nationally. Diedrick had seven 100-yard games.
In the spring game, Diedrick was the leading rusher with 96 yards on 12 carries, including a 54-yard run and a 1-yard touchdown run.
Battling for the backups job will be red-shirt freshman Marques Simmons (5-8, 195) and red-shirt freshman Cory Ross (5-6, 205). Simmons rushed for 88 yards on 12 carries in the spring game and scored on a 10-yard run. Ross rushed for 36 yards on four carries.
Senior I-back Thunder Collins (6-2, 190) combines with Diedrick to give the Huskers a different look. Collins, a slender back with quick moves, rushed for 647 yards, averaging 6.9 yards per carry, and was third on the team in receptions with 19 for 189 yards.
The top three fullbacks return -- senior starter Judd Davies (6-0, 255), sophomore Steve Kriewald (5-10, 255) and senior Paul Kastl (5-10, 230).
Davies led the fullbacks in rushing with 40 carries for 238 yards and four touchdowns last season. Kriewald had 19 carries for 95 yards and one touchdown and Kastl had eight carries for 32 yards.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
Senior split end Wilson Thomas (6-6, 215) returns after leading the team in receiving last season, but he will be joined by two new starters in the receiving corps. Starting tight end Tracey Wistom and wingback John Gibson have departed.
Thomas set a Nebraska record for split ends with 37 catches for 616 yards and led the team with three touchdown catches. Wistrom was second with 21 catches for 323 yards and two touchdowns and Gibson was fourth with 18 catches for 266 yards and one touchdown.
Thomas will be backed up by senior Ben Cornelsen (5-10, 190) and sophomore Ben Zajicek (6-0, 210).
Zajicek had one catch last season while Cornelsen was used on punt returns.
John Klem (6-0, 210) returns for his senior season at split end, but missed the spring with a knee injury.
Even with the loss of Wistrom, the tight end spot is one of the deepest positions on the team. Senior Aaron Golliday (6-4, 290) has started at least two games in each of the last three years and is an outstanding blocker. For his career, Golliday has five catches for 64 yards.
At wingback, senior Troy Hassebroek (6-4, 215) is the only returnee with game experience. He will try to fill the void left by Gibson.
For the second straight season, the Huskers lost three of their five starters on the offensive line. Left guard Toniu Fonoti started all 12 regular-season games last season and earned All-America honors and was a finalist for the Outland Trophy.
Fonoti would have been a frontrunner for he 2002 Outland Trophy, but opted to enter the NFL draft. He was drafted by San Diego in the second round.
Also gone are starting left tackle Dave Volk and right guard Jon Rutherford.
Volk was a three-year starter and Rutherford started 12 games last season. Three other lettermen also departed from the 2002 line -- left tackle Kyle Kollmorgen, center Matt Shook, and right guard Steve Altstadt.
The two returning starters are junior right tackle Dan Vili Waldrop (6-5, 330) and senior center John Garrison (6-4, 290).
Junior tackle Chris Loos (6-3, 310) missed spring practice with a knee injury but is expected to be ready in the fall.
At left guard, junior Tim Green (6-4, 315) and red-shirt freshman Gary Pike (6-4, 300) will battle for the backups job behind Erickson.
Sophomore Jake Anderson (6-1, 290) will contend for time at right guard, while sophomore M.J. Flaum (6-4, 315) will be a backup at right tackle.
When the 2001 season started, Sandro DeAngelis was the Huskers starting kicker, but Josh Brown earned the job early in the season.
Brown (6-2, 190), a senior, may have retained the starting job in the spring. He was slotted as the starter when the spring began, and in the spring game kicked a 36-yard field goal and both of his PAT kicks.
DeAngelis (5-8, 190), a sophomore, made his only PAT kick in the spring game.
Last season, Brown made 34-of-37 PAT kicks and 10-of-14 field-goal attempts. His long field goal was a 43-yarder.
DeAngelis made 15-of-16 PAT kicks and 2-of-3 field-goal attempts.
Perhaps the strength of the defense is the Huskers line with the return of four players with starting experience.
Senior rush ends Chris Kelsay and Demoine Adams both return.
Kelsay (6-5, 255) was sixth on the team in tackles with 52 and led the team in tackles for loss with 17 and tied for the team lead in quarterback hurries with 12. He also had five sacks.
Adams (6-2, 260) led the team in sacks with 5.5 and had 25 tackles, two pass breakups and tied for the team lead in hurries with 12.
Senior Justin Smith (6-4, 265) and junior Benard Thomas (6-4, 270) will back up Kelsay at left rush end and junior Trevor Johnson (6-4, 250) will back up Adams at right end. Smith had 27 tackles last season, including nine tackles for loss, while Thomas had seven tackles, five for loss.
Johnson had nine tackles and two tackles for loss last season.
At nose tackle, senior Jason Lohr (6-2, 280) returns after tearing his ACL in the third game of the 2001 season. Lohr was granted an extra year of eligibility. He had three tackles and 2.5 sacks before the injury.
Senior Jon Clanton (6-2, 290) started the last 10 games at nose tackle after Lohrs injury. Clanton had 24 tackles, six tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and returned a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown against Kent State.
Junior Patrick Kabongo (6-6, 305), who had nine tackles last season, may replace departed Jeremy Slechta in the starting lineup. However, the Huskers may move Clanton or junior Ryon Bingham (6-3, 280) from nose guard to tackle.
Bingham had 18 tackles, five of them for losses, last season.
Several young players will provide backups on the interior of the Huskers line, including red-shirt freshmen Jared Helming (6-3, 280), Brandon Koch (6-3, 275), Titus Adams (6-3, 290), Seppo Evwaraye (6-5, 305) and Matt OShea (6-0, 260).
Two of the three starting linebackers have departed, including leading tackler Jamie Burrow, the starter at middle linebacker. Burrow had 84 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season. He signed a free-agent contract with the Jets.
Also gone is starting weak-side linebacker Mark Verdral, who was third on the team in tackles with 62 and had eight tackles for loss.
The returning starter is strong side linebacker Scott Shanle (6-2, 240), a former walk-on. Shanles 56 tackles last season were the most for a returning player. He had eight tackles for loss and three sacks.
Sophomore Ira Cooper (6-2, 220) and senior Gabe Fries (6-2, 230) will back up Shanle. Cooper played in 11 games last season and had six tackles, while Fries played in seven games and had one tackle.
Junior T.J. Hollowell (6-0, 220) will contend for the starting job at weak-side linebacker, but he was set back by missing the spring because of shoulder surgery. Sophomore Jason Richenberger (6-1, 240) and junior Blanchard Johnson (5-11, 230) were the weak-side linebackers in the spring.
At weak-side linebacker, junior transfer Demorrio Williams (6-1, 205) will vie for the starting job after an impressive spring. Other potential starters include junior Chad Buller (5-11, 215) and sophomore Chad Sievers (6-3, 225).
Williams was the leading tackler in the spring game with 10.
Sophomore Barrett Ruud (6-2, 240), a second-team freshman All-American, is the probable starter at middle linebacker. Ruud had a great freshman year, ranking seventh on the team in tackles with 49. He had six tackles for loss. Ruud made 10 tackles against Troy State.
The Huskers suffered a blow in the spring when junior Willie Amos (6-0, 185), projected as the starter at cornerback, suffered a serious knee injury in a scrimmage.
Amos, a junior, started seven games at free safety last season and led the team with four interceptions. He finished the 2001 season with 28 tackles and missed three games with a hamstring injury. Shortly after the injury, Amos had surgery.
Solich also announced in the spring that junior quarterback Brett Lindstrom (6-0, 190) was moving to safety and that freshman defensive back Randy Landingham was transferring.
The Huskers suffered more losses in the secondary than any other position.
Even before Amos injury, the Huskers were dealing with the departure of All-American cornerback Keyuo Craver, who was chosen by New Orleans in the fourth round of the NFL draft. Craver started every game and was fourth on the team in tackles with 60, had three interceptions and was second on the team in pass breakups with 13.
Leading the secondary will be All-America candidate DeJuan Groce at right cornerback. Groce (5-10, 190), a senior, was third among defensive backs in tackles with 31 and led the team in pass breakups with 14. He also intercepted three passes and blocked a field goal.
The likely starter on the left corner will be sophomore Lornell McPherson (5-9, 175).
Sophomore Phillip Bland (5-11, 205) started three games at rover last season when Booker moved to free safety, but Bland missed the last three games with a foot injury. Bland, who had surgery, played in the spring and could start at either free safety or rover. Senior Aaron Terpening (5-11, 190) and red-shirt freshman Lannie Hopkins (6-2, 220) will be backups.
Junior Jerrell Pippens (6-2, 195) played in 11 games last season and had 14 tackles. Pippens will also contend for the starting job at free safety.
Junior Kyle Larson (6-0, 195) returns as the starting punter. He had 56 punts in the regular season, averaging 38.6 yards per punt. He had 21 punts inside the 20 and a long punt of 68 yards.
Larson ranked sixth in the Big 12 in punting average and the Huskers ranked fifth in net punting.
Red-shirt freshman Sam Koch (6-1, 240) will be Larsons backup.
Craver, the cornerback, was also second on the team in punt returns last season, averaging 11.7 yards on 21 returns.
Groce, however, is back after leading the team in punt returns. He averaged 14.2 yards on 33 returns and had a 60-yard return for a touchdown against Kansas State. He also had a 71-yard return against Miami in the Rose Bowl.
Senior Ben Cornelson (5-10, 190), a split end, returned 10 punts for a 12.4-yard average last season and will again serve as the backup punt returner.
Davis, the I-back, was the lone return man on kickoffs last season. He ranked 14th nationally on returns, averaging 27 yards on a school-record 25 returns. Simmons, the red-shirt freshman I-back, could also return kicks.
Garrison, the starting center, will again be the starting snapper with Chrisman, the reserve quarterback, as the holder.
It wasnt a big recruiting class, but the Huskers coaches believe they got quality.
All were freshman signees except for Williams, the transfer from Kilgore (Texas) College. Williams, a linebacker, is expected to be an impact player.
Last season, Williams led Kilgore to a 12-0 record. He had 127 tackles, nine sacks and two interceptions, earning honorable mention NJCAA All-America honors. Timed in the 40 in 4.6 seconds, Williams was rated No. 10 on Rival.coms non-high school top 100 rankings of prospects.
Williams graduated from Beckville (Texas) High School, where he played free safety. He was also recruited by Colorado, Texas, Florida and Texas A&M, but only visited Nebraska.
Solich signed only five other defensive players -- one lineman, two rush ends, and two defensive backs.
The bulk of the class was offensive players -- four linemen, one quarterback, one running back, two fullbacks, three wide receivers, and one tight end.
Dukes, the quarterback who enrolled at Nebraska in January, was an option quarterback at Newton-Conover High in Stony Point, N.C.
In 2001, Dukes rushed for 1,023 yards and threw for 951 yards in 10 games, missing a game with an injury. As a junior in 2000, Dukes rushed for 1,514 yards and 19 touchdowns and threw for 810 yards and 12 touchdowns.
SuperPrep selected Dukes as an All-American and PrepStar rated him as the No. 3 quarterback in the Atlantic Region.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Several key players are gone from the 2001 Huskers team that played for the national championship. Thus, the team is reloading this year, and as usual the Huskers have players ready and more than willing to fill the voids.
Lord has the biggest shoes to fill, taking over at quarterback for Crouch. Lord may not have the star status of his predecessor, but he proved in the spring hes capable of running the Huskers offense.
Diedrick, the Big 12s leading rusher last season, is back for his senior season, and that will bolster the Huskers chances of retaining their title as the nations best rushing team for the third straight season.
However, the offensive line must replace three of the five starters, including Outland Trophy finalist Fonoti to the NFL. Again, several good backups are anxious for their chance.
Defensively, the Huskers lost five starters. Leading tackler Burrow and Vedral, third in tackles in 2001, are gone from the linebacking corps, and the secondary was depleted by graduation and the loss of Amos to injury in the spring.
Despite the losses, Nebraska should be in contention for another Big 12 title. Tradition can carry a team a long way in college football, and the Huskers have it. Look for them to be in the BCS picture again this season.