Coach: Bill Callahan (2nd season, 5-6) 2004 record: 5-6 Big 12 finish: 3-5 (t-3rd North) 2004 I-A offensive rankings:Rushing: 34th (176.3 ypg) Passing: 81st (186.9 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 11th (104.0 ypg) Passing: 110th (267.6 ypg)
Depth Chart: Offense
5 returning starters in red
Depth Chart: Defense
5 returning starters in red
Le Kevin Smith
To order your 2005 Athlon Sports annual and receive $1 off plus free shipping courtesy of SI.com, click here.
What a difference a year makes. "It's night and day, in my opinion," second-year coach Bill Callahan said. "We know our team so much better."
There also is a new quarterback, junior college transfer Zac Taylor. Two days after the spring game, '04 starting QB Joe Dailey, who would have been a junior, requested and was granted his release to transfer.
Dailey, who took virtually all of the snaps last season after getting a crash course in the West Coast offense, became a lightning rod for criticism as the Cornhuskers endured their first losing season since 1961 and failed to go to a bowl game for the first time since '68.
In the aftermath, Callahan evaluated every aspect of the program, from the locker room to the team's travel routine and office staff. He brought in consultants to work with his assistants, adjusted some coaching responsibilities and simplified the offensive and defensive systems.
The emphasis is on more physical play and an up-tempo approach facilitated by the fact that everyone has a year's worth of learning to diminish the hesitancy that hampered the team.
As a result of the changes, I-back Cory Ross expects a quick turnaround. "This year is going to be the year where we show everything we've got, make a run for it," he said.
Taylor could be a key element of such a run, providing the offense with what Callahan describes as a "big-production arm," something that was missing the first time around. But first Taylor will have to hold off a challenge from freshman Harrison Beck, as competition at quarterback continues in fall camp.
Callahan is cautiously optimistic. "It's coming together," he said. "I don't know if that guarantees us anything, but it certainly gives us a chance to be better."
The offense will showcase a group of running backs led by Ross, who flourished in Callahan's system, rushing for 1,102 yards in '04 despite a painful turf-toe injury. He handled the ball 231 times, running, receiving and returning punts. Brandon Jackson and freshman Marlon Lucky are on hand to spell him.
The health of Matt Herian, one of the best receiving tight ends in Cornhusker history, is a concern, and there has been talk of redshirting him as he tries to come back from a broken left leg. His absence would be a serious blow and force J.B. Phillips or Justin Tomerlin to step up.
Seppo Evwaraye, a converted defensive lineman, is a physical presence in the offensive line, which has the potential to be up to the standards of past Nebraska lines.
Big 12 teams exploited Nebraska's secondary and lack of a pass rush, forcing adjustments during spring practice. The Cornhuskers will rely on more zone coverage, and the ends will be designated as boundary and open-side instead of right and left.
Adam Carriker is a formidable boundary end, at 6-foot-6 and 280 pounds -- and he could weigh close to 300 pounds by fall.
The secondary lost two players to the NFL Draft, Fabian Washington and Josh Bullocks. That's a significant concern. Daniel Bullocks, an honors candidate, will be surrounded by inexperience. Junior college transfer Zackary Bowman is being counted on to provide immediate help at cornerback. Stewart Bradley is a fixture at strong-side linebacker, but Barrett Ruud, the leading tackler in school history, must be replaced in the middle.
Special teams play is a priority, and punt returns in particular; Nebraska ranked No. 107 in the nation in that category. Kickoff coverage also was lacking. Improvement on special teams could be worth two or three victories, Callahan said. To that end, Ross could be returning punts.
Punter Sam Koch returns after averaging 41.3 yards. Freshman Jordan Congdon will challenge David Dyches, last season's backup, for the placekicking job.
The Cornhuskers are young and inexperienced in critical areas, including the secondary. On the plus side, however, they have undergone a talent upgrade, with players recruited specifically for the system. Taylor is a perfect example. Also, returning players know what is expected of them and hence, were able to pick up the pace during spring practice, in which a more physical approach was emphasized.
Nebraska's schedule is conducive to building momentum, with its first five games at home and the sixth at Baylor before an important divisional game at Missouri.
If fall additions can gain confidence early, the Huskers could challenge in the Big 12 North. A winning record and bowl game are well within reach.