Nebraska Head Coach Bill Callahan addressed the media during his annual pre-spring football press conference Monday at Memorial Stadium. The Huskers open spring practice Wednesday with the first of 15 off-season workouts leading up to the annual Red-White Game on April 16. The second-year head coach covered a variety of topics during the press conference, including changes in personnel, roles and philosophies.
“For the next four Saturdays, aside from being involved in the technical aspects of football, we have some other things going on. First off, this Saturday the 26th will be our first Husker Youth Experience. Right now we have over 500 young Huskers coming to visit us after practice. We will put on a clinic for the young kids and coaches of this state. I wish we could have more, but we can’t accommodate everybody, so we’re going to hold that number at 500. It is full right now, and we’re looking forward to having a great day with these young kids. It should be a great experience. I want to keep extending ourselves to the community, state of Nebraska and young Huskers to really get involved in our program. We’ll have our first Husker Youth Camp this summer. I think it’s key to have a youth camp for ages 8-13 to be here on our campus at the University of Nebraska, with our coaches and learn some of the skills in football to make them better players. On April 2, we will have our second annual Junior Day. It was a highly successful event last year. It’s a great kickoff to recruiting. A lot of programs have had junior days so far. We have always waited until spring ball to bring our prospects in so they can watch our team practice, be around our coaches and get involved in meetings. Third, Friday, April 8 and Saturday, April 9 will be our annual (coaches) clinic. At that time, Coach (Dick) Vermeil of the Kansas City Chiefs will be coming in to speak to the high school coaches. It’s always a good day for our staff. The format is going to change in that there are going to be more demonstration drills for the high school coaches, and our players will partake in that on Saturday morning. Coach Vermeil speaks on Friday night. We have a special guest, (former NU assistant coach) Milt Tenopir, he will be a Legends speaker for us at that clinic. That’s something we want to do each year, bring back a former coach to speak at that clinic. On Friday, April 15, the Friday before the Spring Game, we will not be practicing. We will be hosting our first annual Letterman’s Golf Outing. That will be taking place over at Wilderness Ridge. That’s an event we all look forward to, in that it’s great to get the (former) players back here and have camaraderie with the current players here. Lastly, we have the Spring Game. Last year we had 61,000 fans, and I want to make a strong point about how successful that was in our recruiting. It was a major factor and difference in bringing prospects and signees to Nebraska. Again, if we can sell that out on that particular day, that would be a huge response for our prospects coming here on campus. As of now, we have quite a few (prospects) coming in for the Spring Game.”
On how the team stands entering spring football:
“Our team’s ready to transfer from the weight room and the Cook Pavilion. Our strength and conditioning program is ready to take the next step onto the field. We are awfully excited about getting onto the practice field. I think this year’s process of the team’s development will be much more different and unique than it was a year ago. You will see emphasis on special teams, a variety of drills that will be taking place on the field that will really match up with what we need to get accomplished in terms of playing to our strengths and rectifying the errors in our game.
On the team’s objectives during spring football:
“The primary objective of spring football this year, first off, is evaluation. Secondly, we really want to increase the physical nature of competition across the board. I want to make sure that we are all involved in making our team more physical and competitive as we begin spring drills. It will be a demanding spring for our players, and I strongly feel how well we prepare and play this spring will have a direct effect on what we accomplish in the fall. We have 15 days to do a lot of things, and we’ll focus on those primary objectives.”
On the pre-spring depth chart:
“(The depth chart) is strictly tentative at this juncture. I want to make the point that nothing is set in stone. We are going to take our time and evaluate this team very thoroughly. Competition is wide open at every spot. I would like to see roles become more defined, and I’d like to see competition separate itself at the conclusion of spring football. However, we are not in any rush to make a determination as to who our starters will be until we get into training camp before our first game.”
“I think as you look at our depth chart, you will see some changes on defense. One of the significant changes in positioning our defensive personnel was to change the positions and roles of our current players. Let me start there and talk about how we want to match up better and play to the strengths of our team. I think you will find that the tackles’ roles have been defined as the “3” technique, which is essentially an alignment that plays over the outside shoulder of the guard, and the nose tackle, who strictly lines up over the center on every snap. You will see players like Titus Adams and LeKevin Smith play a defined role up in the front. You will also see at the end position “OE,” which stands for open-side end, that’s the open-side end away from the tight end. You will also see “base end.” The base end is a position that will be anchored down by Adam Carriker. Basically, that end lines up to the tight-end side of the formation. There’s been a change and shift in philosophy in terms of how we match up our defensive personnel up front. Everything will stay standard on the second level with the linebackers, and as you look at the secondary, we are starting the spring with “left” and “right” corners. That could change, based on evaluation, as we get into fall training camp and we have other members join our team. We could also look at the possibility of being a “boundary corner” team and a “field corner” team as opposed to right and left. That is still up in the air as of right now.”
On the team’s pre-spring goals:
“I just want to share with you some of our goals, and I’m sure some of you have thoughts about where we are at and where we are heading as a team. I think it has already been publicly stated that we’re in a position now to really define and refine our fundamentals and techniques across the board. Again, it’s not what we’re doing. It’s how we are doing it. We have to do a great job as a coaching staff of elevating these techniques and fundamentals. Coming out of film studies and research that did take place in these last five weeks, we’re really convinced that if we can elevate the standard of our play, we will have a great chance to win a lot of football games in the fall. I also think the spring is a great time to define roles. I want everyone on this team to have a defined role, or two. To that end, we are going to try to improve that through evaluation. We are going to change quite a few players. I think there are eight right now that we are changing in terms of positions. I have about 15 or 16 combinations right now in my mind, but there are eight roles that are definitely changed right now in terms of position changes or additional roles. Like I mentioned before, one of our primary goals is to increase the physical aspect of practice. Each day you’ll see a live “Oklahoma” drill. I want to make sure that we have a drill that is physical in nature where we can line up and master the one-on-one fundamentals of drive blocking and block protection on both sides of the ball.
On improving the special teams’ play:
One of the facets that stuck out in my mind as we watched every area of football this past off-season was special teams. That’s one of the areas that I’m highly concerned about. If you take the four major areas of special teams—punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff coverage—and look just at the conference stats, awarding a point value from the highest to the lowest, you’ll find that we finished 11th (in the Big 12) in special teams. I was really dissatisfied with how we came out in that particular area. A major focus will be on special teams this spring. Not only punt and kickoff return, but more importantly, the two areas where we finished 12th, in punt return and kickoff coverage. Those are two areas that we have to do a great job coaching, a great job defining roles, plugging in the right people and doing a masterful job. That’s an area where I feel we can win two to three games a year. That’s an area where there’s a lot of hidden yardage and I feel we can take advantage. I know we have the athletes to do that, and we definitely want to establish a winning edge in that particular area that spring. We did shift coaching responsibilities to that end, in special teams. Coach (Bill) Busch will now be coaching our safeties and will have limited special teams responsibilities. He will essentially be responsible for the defensive side of the kickoff coverage and punt return. Offensively, the offensive staff will take responsibility of the PAT, field goal, punt and kickoff return. Again, as you can see, the emphasis has been changed. We changed not only through coaching and new techniques, or fundamentals, but also in terms of practice planning. We have now implemented special teams in the middle of practice to put more of a focus on it, to make it more important to our team, so they feel the true impact of that particular area. That’s the No. 1 area we need to improve on as a team as we get into spring football.
On defensive changes:
“We have had a lot of people in Lincoln (this off-season). We’ve brought in a lot of pro people and college people. We’ve visited people to find out exactly what the trend is in defensive football right now. We’ve done a lot of research to that end. I’m very comfortable and satisfied with the effort this staff has given. We have a very comprehensive system, it gives us a lot of flexibility and latitude to do the things we want to do, but we are going to limit and shrink our package so that we can become more physical and respond and react better and quicker initially on the field. So there will be a major reduction in pressures we will feature this spring, and most likely for the fall. We still like our pressure package, but we’ll become more of a zone football team as we begin spring football and conclude it, and then as we get into fall football, we’ll elevate the pressures and game plan certain blitzes and dogs as appropriate. I just want to make a point about pass coverage—we were horrendous. Being 110th in the nation is not very satisfying as a head coach. College football is given a set of rules where you can take advantage of contact. You can take full advantage of banging, bumping and pressing receivers, not only in a five-yard area, but along the entirety of the field. What I want to do is decrease that space in the passing game. We have to do a better job in the passing game of coverage because of that point. You’ll see a more physical attitude, more physicalness along the line of scrimmage in defending receivers coming off of the line of scrimmage. That’s a major change for us. It dove tails right into the returning quarterbacks in this particular division. I look at the Big 12 North and I see that every (starting) quarterback is coming back. You look at Colorado with (Joel) Klatt, Missouri with (Brad) Smith, the two quarterbacks at Kansas State in (Alan) Webb and (Dylan) Meier, and of course (Brett) Meyer at Iowa State—every quarterback in this division returns. They all have been successful throwing the ball, and been successful throwing the ball against us, as well. We have to do a great job in our pass coverage, and we will. I feel very confident about the changes we have made and the trends we’ve studied.”
On the offense:
There are going to be some great battles, personnel-wise. We’ll talk about the quarterback position in a moment, but before we get to that I want to make the point that turnovers absolutely hurt this team last year. That’s the No. 1 factor in determining who wins and loses football games. I just want to make the point that last year giving up 23 (interceptions) was 116th in the country, that’s the second-most turnovers in terms of interceptions. Secondly, we had 10 fumbles. Collectively, we had 33 turnovers that put us at 116th in the country. That’s not good enough. You are not going to win football games giving the ball away. We all understand that, and as fans out there, players or anyone following football, we have to do a much better job of protecting (the football). That comes through ball security, making the right decisions, managing the game properly, not only through the quarterback, but through the running backs and the rest of the team as well. There are times where a sack and a turnover can occur if some assignment up front is not correct in the protection scheme. So there are all kinds of ways that sacks and turnovers can occur, and we have to do a better job across the board.