There's a new look to Nebraska football, and you could see it on quarterback Joe Dailey's face last week. Ten minutes after his first spring practice under Bill Callahan, who replaced ousted Cornhuskers coach Frank Solich on Jan. 9, the sophomore's expression flickered between excitement and bewilderment. "We hadn't even warmed up, and he's calling for some combination route with a name, like, two sentences long," said Dailey. "I'm trying to spit this play out, and guys in the huddle are looking at me as if to say, We're doing this already?"
Callahan, the first Huskers coach to be hired from outside the program since 1962, is wasting no time in bringing Nebraska up to speed on his style of football. In less than three months the former Oakland Raiders coach has enacted more change than the tradition-entrenched program had seen in nearly three decades. The Huskers' long-standing welcome of walk-ons? Callahan's preseason roster shrank from 139 names in late January to 113 last week. That spartan locker room at Memorial Stadium? Callahan ordered scarlet-and-cream banners hung and will have input into plans for a supersized, super-modern locker room to be part of a $50 million stadium renovation. "Football is always evolving," says Callahan, "and we must move with it"
An offensive assistant at the college and NFL levels for 21 years before his head coaching debut with the Raiders in 2002, Callahan led Oakland to the Super Bowl in his first season, but an injury-plagued 4-12 campaign last year prompted his firing at the end of the season. Callahan's boldest move in Lincoln will be replacing the option offense—Nebraska's mainstay since 1977—with the West Coast attack he ran in the NFL. The coach is confident the system will boost the Huskers' offense, which ranked 10th in the Big 12 last year at 345.0 yards per game.
To ease the transition, Callahan and his revamped staff, which includes two former Oakland assistants, worked tirelessly over the winter to assemble a top 25 recruiting class featuring players familiar with a prostyle offense. At the same time he supplied Dailey and three other returning quarterbacks with tapes of the 2002 Raiders offense, directed by Rich Gannon, who led the NFL in passing that year. "We've been practicing signals to those tapes every day after class," says Dailey. "Our preparation is endless."
Until the results of that preparation are unveiled in September, the question of whether this new offense can propel the Cornhuskers into their first conference title game in five years will be the source of heated debate in football-mad Lincoln. Most fans are optimistic, including Tom Ruud, a Nebraska linebacker from 1972 to '74 and father of current linebackers Barrett and Bo. Last week Tom was among several alums who drifted into Memorial Stadium for a sneak peek at the new Huskers. "Thousands of people in this state are wondering what's going to happen and how fast it's going to happen," he said. "But the one sure thing is a new excitement in the air. The players will feed off of that."