Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Spring & Hope Springs Eternal

Usually "Hope Springs Eternal" comes up with the start of baseball season, but with the start of spring football practice tomorrow, it certainly applies to Husker football. Finally, it's time to put the debacle that was the 2007 season behind us.

Or is it?

As players get ready to start spring practice, several players are now contrasting Bo Pelini's approach to his predecessor. Bill Callahan prided himself on his organization and planning. Before he had even hiring his entire staff, Callahan had already laid out his plans for spring practice. He force fed his NFL system and crammed it into the time alloted by the NCAA for preparation. Some fans thought it was brilliant how advanced the new Husker system was.

One minor problem. Players had one shot to master these concepts. There simply wasn't time to work on teaching when it came to practice time.
But Callahan's routine, conceived in the NFL and tailored to prepare starters for Sunday games, had a drawback at the college level, some believe. It's a problem every kid who's ever taken a science or math class can understand: Comprehension of one day's material determines comprehension of the next day's. Fall behind, even a day or two, and the test questions get mighty hard.

Nebraska football players often fell behind.

"Coaches weren't really in teaching mode," safety Larry Asante said.

So whoever understood the information, Asante said, "that's the guy who played."

"There were guys out there lost."
We've seen the Callahan era playbook and wondered just how players were ever able to master it. The sad fact is... they didn't. The guys that did play were the ones who were able to muddle through. That helps explain why Sam Keller struggled. That explains why players like Niles Paul and Ricky Thenarse didn't see much playing time.

Let's contrast that with a different approach. One from a coach named Bo Pelini dating back five years:
The Huskers were coming off a disastrous 2002 in which they crumbled under Blackshirt expectations, resulting in coordinator Craig Bohl's dismissal.

During the first scrimmage of spring practice, Pelini ordered his defense into one very basic scheme for the entirety of practice. Won't the offense catch on and expose us, Husker defenders asked. Doesn't matter, Pelini said. Success starts with effort, not scheme.

"We went out and just dominated the scrimmage," Ricketts said. "Right then and there, everybody bought into the system."
Let's revisit that quote.
Success starts with effort, not scheme.
It's hard to argue with the results from five years ago, though the circumstances and players are quite a bit different. I've argued that last season's defense got significantly worse as the season wore on; it wasn't so much a talent issue but a lack of faith in what they were doing. I think that's something that Bo Pelini immediately addresses. Expecting a top-15 defense to emerge in Lincoln is unrealistic...but expecting significant improvement shouldn't be.

Another area of improvement is in the cohesiveness of the coaching staff. I've long felt that Callahan's staff was as dysfunctional as Al Bundy and his family...something I really don't think this staff is going to have near the problem with. Now, we're hearing more about that from players such as Matt Slauson, who told the Lincoln Journal-Star that players didn't know who was starting until ten minutes before the game and that he wasn't sure who was making the decisions.
"There was definitely a frustration for the team, one, but for me especially. Because I kind of feel like I got jacked around a little bit, switching positions all the times, switching playing time all the time, playing a few plays here, a few plays there. I was really frustrated the whole time ... I had no idea what was going on the whole year. I think (it) just messed with my head a little bit. I don't know if there were head games they were doing or what, but I just didn't feel comfortable where I was."
Certainly former offensive line coach Dennis Wagner agreed with that, telling fans at last year's final Big Red Breakfast that he didn't see eye to eye with Callahan:
"He is the head coach. If he says this is what you do, this is what you do. If you don't, then you have problems within your group. It isn't always that you want to do it that way, but it's the way you're supposed to do it. That's just part of doing the things you're asked to do by the person who hired you."
I'm not sure what we'll learn about the future of the Husker program, but I'm getting a strong indication that many of the problems we saw last year were the result of a complete clusterf*** of a coaching staff. If that is truly the case, then the future of Husker football might look a heck of a lot better than it looked at the end of last season. If the players believe in this new staff, you never know what might happen.


AJ said...

It's very easy to put the blame on one guy..or in this case..just "effort".

College football is vastly different now in the world of spread offenses and wide open formations. The days of simply lining up 7 guys and rushing the QB (with a lot of "effort) are simply over.

I'm not saying "effort" isn't a part of the puzzle here...your team folded like Superman on laundry day last season. But to think that's the ONLY problem is downright silly.

Sam Keller was a career 4-4 quarterback who's numbers were inflated by blowout wins over bad teams. The reason he wasn't as great as you thought he'd be is...well...he wasn't as great as you thought he'd be.

We shall see.

doombob said...

Callahan was always good at organizing, but never motivating. He never should have been a college football coach (hindsight is 20/20). It's not a one-man show on the field or on the sidelines. Pelini has guys surrounding him who can train, communicate with, and teach the players. With proper conditioning, this should produce results.

Husker Mike said...

I don't think it was the only problem, but it became such a huge festering problem that it really makes it tough to really identify anything else solid.

This team gave up 57 points a game in November. In football, not basketball mind you.

57 points a game? Even cutting that in half (going to merely mediocre and giving up 28 points a game on average) is a monumental improvement. Before you can identify what those other problems are (and believe me, they are there. Just look at linebacker for starters...), you've got to get the hemorrhaging under control.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it was just Callahan. I think his whole system failed and was exposed for the fraud it was. The offense produced but how many yards and points gained against garbage defenses. I can't remember a game this season besides Nevada and K-State in which the offense really flowed like it was supposed to all along. I don't think the talent isn't there (it may have not been recruited according to needs) I just think development didn't happen with alot of these players.

We shall see I guess.