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Children counting telephone poles on a long, boring drive. Insomniacs counting sheep. Prisoners marking off the changeless days on cell walls. To these soporific situations let us add football writers counting returning starters: "Tech returns 16 starters from last year's 6-5 also-rans.... State has seven starters returning on offense but only three on defense...." Talk about your tired numbers. As a harbinger of success, the returning-starter statistic ranks right up there with the number of balloons ordered for the pregame show.
Nonetheless, we are told that there is grave concern in Huskerland because coach Tom Osborne's returning starters could all fit into a VW Beetle. Only four positions will be filled by incumbents—two on offense, two on defense. That's Nebraska's lowest total since 1964. "It's a concern," Osborne says. "We've only got six guys that ever started."
The turnover is not as catastrophic as all that. Returning starters may be in short supply, but Nebraska has plenty of experienced players from last year's 10-2 Sugar Bowl champion, and most of them are big, strong upperclassmen. Indeed, Nebraska's strength is best revealed by looking at its returning nonstarters. I-back Doug DuBose, for example, played "behind" Jeff Smith last year but gained 1,040 yards and edged Smith for the Big Eight rushing title. "Doug probably doesn't have the inside power that Mike Rozier had—he's not quite as heavy—but he has greater speed," says Osborne. Actually, DuBose gained eight pounds during the off-season, not counting a pound or two of gold necklaces. "He's the only guy I know," says Osborne, "who wears his whole bank account around his neck."
Another returning nonstarter is former All-Big Eight linebacker Mike Knox, a fifth-year senior who missed last season with a knee injury. Two years ago he led Nebraska with 125 tackles, intercepted four passes and was the squad's defensive player of the game eight times. With returning first-teamer Marc Munford at the other linebacker spot, the Cornhuskers might have the best pair in the country.
At quarterback, fifth-year senior Travis Turner is not listed as a returning starter only because Osborne started senior Craig Sundberg in the Sugar Bowl. Turner started the last six games of the regular season. He had 10 TDs to become the first quarterback to lead the Huskers in scoring since 1962.
Osborne has another quarterback, sophomore McCathorn Clayton, who, according to Turner, "has more ability than any quarterback who has ever played here." However, Nebraska figures to open with the more experienced Turner. "Particularly in the first couple of ball games, experience at quarterback is critical," says Osborne. "Travis Turner is going to be very important."
Maybe. The Cornhuskers have finished in the Top 10 for 12 consecutive years under Osborne and have played in 12 straight bowl games, suggesting that whoever plays quarterback, Nebraska will win. " Nebraska is the same every year to me," says Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer. "It's just the names that change."