With the start of Big XII Media Days in Kansas City today, it's time to start looking ahead to the 2008 Husker football season. Usually when you start looking ahead, the first place to start is to review the previous season and consider returning players as well as the impact of departing players.
Usually, that is. This season is the exception to that rule, because last season was, frankly speaking, exceptionally horrible.
[Warning: Blatant plug alert]
Last fall, I was asked by CornBlight over at CornNation to participate in a project to assemble a season preview publication. Well, "A Sea of Red" is finally available. You can order it online from the publisher or HuskerPedia, or if you are around the area, you'll hopefully find it at your nearest magazine rack. (Saw it yesterday at the grocery store.)
[End blatant plug]
My big assignment: A Review of the 2007 Season. Ugggghhhhh. And so I spent several weekends over the winter reliving the horror that was 2007 Nebraska football. In fact, I wonder if I spent more time reviewing the 2007 Husker season than Bo Pelini did. (Since Pelini himself said he wasn't going to spend much time looking at last season.)
And for good reason. Looking back over 2007, you saw a team regress from a squad that went 3-1in September against teams that would go to bowl games, to then lose every game in October, finishing up by giving up 172 points in three games in November. They went seven quarters without scoring an offensive touchdown against Missouri and Oklahoma State, went 60 minutes without scoring a touchdown against A&M and Texas, then scored 124 points against Kansas State and Colorado.
You want to try and make sense out of that? Frankly, there's no point in it. Last season was the culmination of a royal clusterfool. Period.
But even taking that into consideration, what does Nebraska have coming back?
Well, let's start at quarterback. Joe Ganz got some valuable experience in November, and it was a classic glass half-full/half-empty situation. In 3 games started (and three mop-up appearances), Ganz threw for 16 touchdowns and 1435 yards. That's the good. Seven interceptions were the bad. Some of those interceptions could be attributed to being thrown to the wolves (against Kansas), a couple against Colorado might have been attributed to getting dinged up at the end of the first half against Kansas. In a quarterback-rich league like the Big XII, he's not starting the season as one of the marquee players. He's in the bottom half of the league, frankly. But he should be servicable.
At I-back, Marlon Lucky brings some impressive receiving statistics along with fantastic open field running ability. What he lacks is that tough inside running game. From my perspective, the success Nebraska has this season will rate in large measure on the ability of offensive coordinator Shawn Watson to get Lucky the ball "in space." That means you'll hopefully seem him this season as a "slash" player: frequently at I-back, but occasionally in the slot as well. And with his 2-for-4 career passing mark, maybe even a little quarterback as well.
Lining Lucky up at receiver will also help solidify Nebraska's receiver corps, who will be looking to replace Maurice Purify and Terrence Nunn. Nate Swift and Todd Peterson return to anchor this group, though fans will be looking for some of the highly touted young receivers to finally make an impact. Will it be Menelik Holt, Niles Paul, Chris Brooks, Will Henry, or Curenski Gilleylen? That's an open question.
Tight end is a lingering question that has absolutely no answers this summer. Right now, they're just names: Mike McNeill, Hunter Teafatiller (if he gets his legal issues worked out), or Dreu Young. Somebody will need to emerge from this pack in September.
The effects of the coaching change will appear to be most visible immediately up front on both sides of the line. The previous regime believed in physical size and bulk on both sides of the ball; we know how well that worked. New Husker strength coach James Dobson has concentrated on explosiveness, speed, and flexibility instead of pure size. Will it be more effective? That's one of the big questions going into the 2008 season. Players on the offensive line seem to think it will help. Personally, I expect Matt Slauson to return to prior form. I also wonder if Lydon Murtha will finally break through this season with different, more consistent coaching.
The defensive line became a running joke last season. Literally. But Phil Steele thinks that Zach Potter (3rd team DE), Barry Turner (4th team DE), and Ndamakong Suh (4th team DT) are among the more talented defenders in the league. Again, I've got to believe that downsizing these guys can only help. Especially Barry Turner, who I feared was oversized last summer.
Linebacker is the gaping hole in this team, as only Phillip Dillard returns. Will Cody Glenn be able to become an impact player at linebacker in his senior season? Some might doubt it, but if Pelini's belief in effort being more important than scheme is correct, then Glenn could become a star. Pelini will only give Glenn as much as he can handle.
In the secondary, Armando Murillo and Larry Asante return. One player to keep an eye on is Ricky Thenarse, who's been a huge hitter on special teams but wasn't able to see much playing time under the previous regime. Can secondary coach Marvin Sanders work his magic again?
Husker fans will be wondering how much of an impact Pelini can have on the 8th worst defense in 1-A college football. I'm expecting a huge impact, but that doesn't mean that suddenly Nebraska will have a top ten or top twenty defense. A huge impact could merely be the difference between non-existent and mediocre.
As I reviewed last season, one thing struck me over and over and over again. Simply put..."these players can't POSSIBLY be that bad." Maybe it's delusion, maybe it's hopefulness. But I think the previous coaching staff took a team that might have, could have, and probably should have won eight or nine games and ran it into the ground.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't a "National Championship" squad...and likely not a conference championship team. But I think there is a football team hiding underneath the surface that, by the end of the season, will make Bill Callahan's failure to succed with these players even more jarring.