NU Aims for Return to Elite
Lincoln -- Eight months is not a long time in the grand scheme of things. Then again if you are 19 or 20 years old, eight months can seem like an eternity, especially for 150 Husker football players.
Eight months. That is the length of time that will have passed from Nebraska?s Independence Bowl loss to end a disappointing 7-7 2002 season to a much-anticipated Aug. 30 season opener against Oklahoma State at Memorial Stadium.
Thousands of fans in Husker Nation can rest assured that those eight months have been used wisely in the Husker football program. The Huskers had a renewed sense of dedication and urgency as they went through off-season workouts.
Players and coaches alike commented about the successful winter conditioning program. Most players took just one week off after the spring semester before returning to campus to resume workouts with a constant focus on the start of fall camp, and with the date Aug. 30 etched in their minds.
Eight months. It?s not a long time, but a lot can be done in that time, including the building of a foundation of a successful football season.
Fifteen Starters Return, New Coaches Join Huskers
Head Coach Frank Solich?s sixth Nebraska team will have a mix of experience, youth and new faces this fall. Those new faces will not only be on the field, but in the coaches? meeting room.
Six new assistant coaches have joined Solich?s staff, including new coordinators on both sides of the football. Former Husker Barney Cotton takes over the offensive play-calling duties from Solich, while ex-Green Bay Packer assistant Bo Pelini was tabbed to lead the Blackshirt defense. Four other assistants?two each on offense and defense?also are new to the Nebraska staff. The coaching staff will have the luxury of welcoming back 15 players who made at least five starts last season, including nine on defense.
Headlining the offensive returnees are senior quarterback Jammal Lord and sophomore offensive tackle Richie Incognito, an Outland Trophy candidate. Among the losses on offense are Dahrran Diedrick, Wilson Thomas and John Garrison, two-year starters at I-back, receiver and center, respectively.
The defense lost just five starters from last season, but three of them?rush end Chris Kelsay, cornerback DeJuan Groce and linebacker Scott Shanle?donned Blackshirts each of the past three seasons. Their loss will be felt, but Pelini can rely on a front seven that could be the strength of Nebraska?s team, and a youthful but talented secondary.
|Sophomore offensive tackle Richie Incognito will contend for All-Big 12 and national honors in 2003.|
The Nebraka offense returns five starters for the 2003 campaign, including a pair of players who enter their third year in the Huskers? starting 11. Several other players with extensive playing time return, but building quality depth will be a key during fall camp.
Cotton spent the last six years at New Mexico State, where the Aggies operated out of an offense similar to Nebraska?s run-oriented option attack. Cotton will strive for more balance and an improved passing attack over last season.
Lord to Lead Offense in Second Season as Starting Quarterback
Most discussions of the Husker offense begin with quarterback Jammal Lord. A strong season from Lord will be imperative for the Huskers to move back into the elite in the rugged Big 12 Conference. The 6-2, 220-pound Lord is in his second season under center after facing the unenviable task of replacing 2001 Heisman winner Eric Crouch.
Lord went through growing pains early last fall, but he quickly exhibited his play-making abilities and went on to a record-breaking season. In the process, Lord erased several of the records set by his award-winning predecessor.
Lord rushed for a Nebraska quarterback record 1,412 yards in 14 games and posted the top two rushing days ever by a Husker quarterback. The Bayonne, N.J., native scampered for 218 yards and three touchdowns in an early October win over McNeese State. His new NU quarterback rushing record lasted all of four weeks. A gallant effort by Lord against Texas included 234 rushing yards on 23 carries. Lord?s 200-yard rushing days were part of five games in which he cracked the century mark on the ground.
Lord?s rushing effort against McNeese State keyed a school-record 369-yard total offense performance, again surpassing a record previously held by Crouch. Lord averaged nearly 200 yards of total offense per game, and totaled 2,774 yards last season, also a school record.
The Husker offense again led the Big 12 in rushing offense last season on the strength of Lord?s powerful legs. However, if there was an area where Lord and the Nebraska offense struggled in 2002 it was the presence of a consistent passing game.
Lord passed for 1,362 yards, including eight games with 100 yards or more through the air. Lord also threw for 12 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions, but completed only 46.6 percent of his passes. Lord wore a "hands-off" green jersey throughout spring practice, but his focus was squarely on improving his passing efficiency. Lord also worked throughout the off-season on building his leadership skills.
The majority of the workload figures to go to Lord this fall, not only because of his experience, but also as a result of a roster thin on quarterbacks. A pair of signal callers left the fold after spring practice, leaving just three returning quarterbacks and a highly regarded incoming freshman.
Junior Mike Stuntz served as Lord?s backup last season and appeared in six contests. A left-hander, Stuntz is regarded as a good passer, and an effective runner. Stuntz threw for 72 yards in extended work last season at Iowa State. The 6-1, 200-pound Stuntz spent his first season at Nebraska as a receiver, and threw a memorable 63-yard pass to Crouch for a touchdown in the Huskers? 20-10 victory over Oklahoma.
Stuntz had a solid spring practice, capped by a good spring game, but needs to continue to develop his running skills to gain more playing time.
Senior Brett Lindstrom is listed third at quarterback entering fall camp. Lindstrom was a reserve quarterback early in his NU career, before moving to defensive back last season. A foot injury sidelined him a year ago, and he moved back to quarterback in the spring.
The arrival of freshman quarterback Joe Dailey has been much-publicized. Dailey was a prep standout in Jersey City, N.J., and his dual threat run-pass skills make him a good fit in the Husker offense. Nebraska coaches figure to give Dailey a long look during fall practice.
Three Returning O-Line Starters To Pave Way for Husker Attack
Nebraska lost a pair of senior starters along its offensive line in Garrison and offensive guard Wes Cody. However, the return of three starters and strong improvements by other players have Husker coaches hopeful that this unit will be improved in 2003.
The headliner on the line is Richie Incognito, a 6-3, 300-pound sophomore who will line up at left tackle. Incognito tried his hand at center this spring, but will return to his natural position in the fall. He was the first Nebraska lineman to begin a freshman season as a starter and responded with dominant play. Incognito led the Huskers in pancakes with the second-highest total ever at Nebraska. His banner freshman campaign was capped with first-team frosh All-America honors and first-team all-league honors from The Sporting News.
Incognito could be poised for bigger honors this season. He has already been named to the Outland Trophy watch list and has the ability to be the next great player in Nebraska?s long list of legendary offensive linemen.
Senior Dan Vili Waldrop returns at right tackle, giving Nebraska bookend tackles with starting experience. Waldrop, who stands 6-5 and checks in at 350 pounds, has started each of the past two seasons and helped Nebraska to a pair of league rushing crowns. Waldrop has good mobility despite his enormous size, and will turn his focus to becoming a more consistent player this fall.
Junior Nick Povendo (6-3, 300) was the swing tackle last season and earned two starts during the course of the year. He enters fall camp listed second behind Incognito at left tackle and provides Nebraska with an experienced backup who can play either tackle.
Senior Chris Loos (6-3, 290) has been sidelined by injuries much of his Nebraska career, but completed spring practice in good health. Loos is listed second behind Waldrop at right tackle entering the fall.
Junior Mike Erickson is Nebraska?s third returning starter on the offensive front. Erickson had a solid first season as a starter at left guard in 2002, and made excellent progress in the Husker weight room in the winter. Erickson has a combination of good size (6-4, 305) and mobility and is poised to become a more dominant player as a junior.
The other guard spot is likely to be filled by junior Jake Andersen (6-1, 300) who made big strides during winter conditioning and spring practice. Andersen has seen limited playing time in his Husker career, but was a finalist for Nebraska?s Lifter of the Year and has the strength and explosion to make an impact this season.
Senior Tim Green has had a similar career to Loos. A highly recruited player out of Omaha, Green has yet to play in a game at Nebraska while battling back and knee injuries. Green (6-4, 325) has the physical tools to be a factor if he can stay healthy and enters the fall second behind Erickson on the left side. Redshirt freshman Jermaine Leslie (6-1, 315) is coming off ankle surgery, but could also push for playing time at guard.
Sophomore Brandon Koch (6-3, 310) saw limited action last season, but has continued to progress and sits second behind Andersen on the right side. Listed with Koch as No. 2 at right guard is redshirt freshman Jemayel Phillips. At 6-6, 365, "Big Smooth" is the largest player on the team and has remarkable athleticism for his size. Phillips is still learning the NU system, but could make an impact in 2003.
The center position provided one of the biggest surprises of spring practice. The loss of Garrison forced Husker coaches to turn to Incognito, who spent the first two weeks of spring ball in the middle. However, the play of senior Josh Sewell changed the original plan.
A Lincoln native and transfer from Indiana State, Sewell (6-2, 300) showed that he was one of Nebraska?s top five offensive linemen during spring ball and allowed Incognito to move back to tackle. Sewell faces a big task, as Nebraska?s best lines have all started with a dominant center.
Redshirt freshman Kurt Mann (6-3, 290) has added nearly 30 pounds of muscle in his year in the Husker program and will back up Sewell at center. Nebraska continued to bolster its offensive line during this year?s recruiting period, inking four players to national letters of intent. Junior college transfer Darren DeLone (6-5, 320) and freshman Ryan Schuler (6-7, 270) could each get a look at tackle.
|I-back David Horne rushed for 651 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman.|
Omahans Davies and Horne Pace Husker Backfield
Nebraska figures to look for more balance in its offense, but there will be no shortage of action for Husker running backs. New running backs coach Tim Albin returns seven lettermen at the two spots, led by a pair of Omaha natives?projected starters Judd Davies at fullback and David Horne at I-back.
The fullback position will be held down for the third straight season by Davies (6-0, 250). He has established himself as an effective runner out of the backfield, while also doing a solid job as a lead blocker for Husker I-backs and quarterbacks. He has started 24 games in the past two seasons and has rushed for more than 600 yards in his Husker career. Davies is also primed for academic honors as a senior. He owns better than a 3.9 cumulative grade-point average and is a two-time academic all-district selection.
There is ample depth behind Davies. Junior Steve Kriewald (5-10, 250) has backed Davies each of the past two seasons. Kriewald missed spring practice after off-season ankle surgery, but should be ready to go in the fall. Kriewald has shown good running skills in limited carries during his first two years of action. Senior DeAntae Grixby (5-8, 215) has spent the majority of his Nebraska career as an I-back, but moved to fullback midway through last season. Grixby is a bit smaller than most Nebraska fullbacks, but gives the Huskers another look at the position and is likely to see significant time this fall.
Redshirt freshmen Dane Todd (5-10, 235) and Grant Miller (6-0, 225) are both talented players who made a good impression during spring practice, while senior Andy Wingender (5-10, 250) will also provide depth at fullback.
Dahrran Diedrick held down the starting position at I-back each of the past two seasons, but has moved on to the professional level. Diedrick rushed for a Big 12-leading 1,299 yards in 2001, and picked up more than 900 yards last season, while splitting time with Horne.
Horne (6-0, 190) emerged from spring practice on top of the depth chart at I-back. Horne sat out the first five games last season while contemplating a redshirt season, but with the Husker running attack in need of a kick-start, NU coaches turned to the true freshman before the McNeese State game.
The decision to put the Omaha Central product on the field in 2002 proved to be an intelligent one. Horne was a fourth-team freshman All-American by The Sporting News after rushing for 651 yards and seven touchdowns. Horne opened his career with 81 yards against McNeese State and added three 100-yard games in his next four outings, including a 128-yard, four-TD effort in NU?s comeback win at Texas A&M. Horne has good speed, excellent field vision and the ability to be an effective receiver out of the backfield.
Just as in the spring, several players will continue to push Horne at I-back throughout the fall. Senior Josh Davis (5-11, 205) has seen significant action at I-back in his Nebraska career, while setting records as a kickoff return man. Davis carried for more than 150 yards last season and has good hands as a receiver out of the backfield. He ended spring ball listed as co-No. 2 at I-back.
Running second at I-back with Davis is sophomore Cory Ross, who played a key role last season. Ross (5-6, 215) saw his most extensive action early in the year before Horne shed his redshirt. Ross finished the year with 184 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Like Davis and Horne, Ross has good receiving skills out of the backfield and his height makes him difficult to find for opposing defenders.
Senior Robin Miller (5-11, 230) has seen limited action during his time at Nebraska, but has shown flashes of ability. He had a strong spring practice and will make a push for playing time in the fall.
Pilkington, Herian Key Young Receiving Corps
The area hit hardest by graduation last season was Nebraska?s receiving corps. The starters at all three positions?split end Wilson Thomas, wingback Troy Hassebroek and tight end Aaron Golliday?were all fifth-year seniors and have moved on. Five other lettermen were lost from the receiving corps, including four of the top five tight ends on the Husker depth chart.
Nebraska will refer to its two wideout positions as "X" and "Z" receivers, rather than split end and wingback as in past years. Despite the losses to graduation, Husker coaches are optimistic about an athletic group of young receivers that should have more balls thrown their way, as Nebraska strives for a more balanced attack.
The top returning wide receiver is sophomore Ross Pilkington (6-0, 190) who was Nebraska?s second-leading receiver last season. A former minor league baseball player, Pilkington caught a Husker freshman-record 14 passes for 301 yards, also a frosh record. His 90-yard touchdown reception from Jammal Lord at Iowa State was the longest pass play by Nebraska in 37 years and the third-longest in school history. Pilkington has good speed combined with the strength to make tough catches in the middle of the field.
The players behind Pilkington at the "X" receiver position have limited playing time, but made good progess during spring ball. Senior Tim Liley (6-2, 205) missed much of spring practice because of injury, but has played a key reserve role the past two years. Kade Pittman (5-11, 200) joined the NU program in January and had an excellent spring practice to join the mix for playing time. Redshirt freshman Grant Mulkey (5-11, 185), junior Kiffin Wigert (5-9, 160) and senior Ryan Ommert (5-10, 195) all provide depth at the position.
Like Josh Sewell at center, Jack O?Holleran?s ascension to No. 1 on the depth chart came as a big surprise to most. O?Holleran (5-10, 205) has been a little-used reserve in his first two seasons of action, but the junior had the most consistent spring of any of Nebraska?s receivers. He has good strength and excellent perimeter blocking skills and enters the fall as Nebraska?s No. 1 "Z" receiver.
Sophomore Mark LeFlore (5-11, 185) showed play-making ability as a true freshman last season. LeFlore played in 13 games and caught six passes. Blessed with good speed, LeFlore is also a threat as a runner. He carried four times for 80 yards last season, including a 64-yard touchdown run on a reverse against McNeese State.
Junior Ben Zajicek (6-0, 210) earned significant playing time as a freshman two seasons ago, but was limited in 2002 by a groin injury. He missed all of spring practice, but enters fall camp listed third at the position and should push for playing time. Sophomore Mike McLaughlin (5-11, 180) and redshirt freshman Isaiah Fluellen (6-0, 185) both have excellent athletic ability and may be in the mix in the fall. McLaughlin is a converted quarterback, while Fluellen is a speedster who came to the Husker program from Ramstein, Germany.
The tight end position was depleted by graduation with four of the top five players gone. However, Matt Herian (6-5, 240) was Nebraska?s top receiving threat at the position and is poised for big things in his sophomore season.
Herian emerged as a future star as a redshirt freshman. He caught just seven passes last season, but those receptions covered a Nebraska freshman-record 301 yards?a remarkable 43.0 yards per reception. Herian made his first career reception a memorable one, hauling in a 33-yard TD pass against Utah State and gained momentum from there. He finished with four touchdowns, including a 60-yarder vs. Texas, an 80-yarder against Colorado and a 41-yard TD in the Independence Bowl vs. Ole Miss. Herian focused his attention in the off-season on improving his strength in order to become a more effective blocker.
Senior Phil Peetz (6-2, 270) is listed second at tight end heading into the fall. A former defensive end, Peetz figures to play the role of blocking specialist at tight end, but worked hard on his receiving skills in the spring and made progress in that area. Junior Chris Septak (6-3, 255) has had a hard-luck Nebraska career, but he avoided the injury bug this spring and showed flashes of the ability that made him a highly regarded prep recruit three years ago.
Receivers coach Ron Brown and tight ends coach Scott Downing may also take a look at three newcomers in the fall. Lincoln Southeast product Andy Birkel (6-3, 175) swept the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races at the state track meet and could play as a true freshman. J.B. Phillips (6-3, 250) and Josh Mueller (6-6, 250) are both big, physical tight ends that fit the mold of past Husker standouts at the position.