He had focused, he had executed. He had spent an invigorating evening mauling Tennessee. Finally, late in Nebraska's 31-21 win over the Vols in last January's Fiesta Bowl, Russ Hochstein let his mind wander. "While we were driving for our last touchdown," says Hochstein, the Corn-huskers' right guard, "I couldn't help thinking that if we'd taken care of business earlier in the season, if we'd done just a few more things right, we could have been playing for the championship. That's what gets me excited about this season. This season we're going to do those things right."
As he speaks, the 290-pound Hochstein wipes perspiration from his forehead. On this warm July morning he has just finished lifting. Four mornings a week, all summer long, at 7:30 sharp, the offensive line met in the school's weight room to pump iron and do some bonding. Gosh, says a visitor, doesn't that cut into your barroom time? Hochstein laughs. "To each his own," he says. "We'd rather sacrifice our time somewhere else—go to bed early, get up early—so we can be in the weight room. We have a great opportunity this season."
Such is the sense of mission emanating from Lincoln. The Cornhuskers believe that if they take care of business, they will improve on last season's 12-1 record. They will eliminate the mistakes that resulted in a midseason 24-20 loss to Texas. An offense that evolved into a juggernaut last season—the Cornhuskers' final two touchdown drives against Tennessee went for 96 and 99 yards—will see the return of dynamic quarterback Eric Crouch and nine other starters. A defense that earned the reputation as the sternest in school history retains seven starters. This is not what you'd call a rebuilding year.
Third-year head coach Frank Solich allows that "the biggest key is having the right people line up for you. And we've been able to get the kind of players that we look for." In the guarded argot of the Cornhuskers, that translates to "Watch out! We are loaded!"
Certainly the offense constitutes an embarrassment of riches. The only player on the roster capable of matching quarterback Crouch for excitement is Bobby Newcombe, the guy whose job Crouch took. He replaced Newcombe in the third game of the '99 season. Newcombe returned to wingback, the position he had played in '97, and made big plays all year.
Crouch will also look for junior tight end Tracey Wistrom (little brother of former Huskers All-America and current St. Louis Rams defensive end Grant) whose 26.8 yards per catch last fall set a school record. A seasoned line will clear holes for Dan Alexander, Correll Buckhalter and Dahrran Diedrick—three of the seven I-backs the Cornhuskers have on scholarship.
Seven would seem like overkill at most schools. At Nebraska, future I-backs must be carefully chosen and meticulously groomed. One of the few preseason questions in Lincoln is whether juco transfer Thunder Collins will get to make some noise. But at I-back, the Huskers' trademark position, allowances are made for injuries. At Nebraska, seven is just enough. At Nebraska, little is left to chance.
That's why Solich is concerned about the defense. "We have a lot of holes," he says. "We'll fill 'em with talent. But that talent will be inexperienced."
The holes are deepest at both outside linebacker positions, at which last year's first-and second-stringers are gone. It is curious—or telling—that the guy who will be forced to babysit the new starters is the guy who is least concerned. "These young guys were flying around in spring ball," says middle linebacker Carlos Polk. "Believe me, they are ready to play."
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]