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July 18, 2001

The Desert Husker • Bill Marks

Getting Through the Dog Days of Summer

Don't get me wrong, I love baseball, and the 2001 campaign has been awfully good so far. Bonds chasing McGwire's record. The Cubs fighting for first place in the NL Central. The high-priced Indians dueling with the bargain basement Twins.

But while baseball is still dominating the sports page, college football has taken up residence in my psyche, and I know I'm not alone. When it comes to excitement, college football is Tyra Banks and all other sports are Janet Reno. Heck, there are more people on the field of a Nebraska football home game than are in attendance of a Montreal Expos game.

If you concentrate, you can hear the barely audible sound of "There is No Place Like Nebraska," building, and mingling with the summer breeze. As we enter August and the newcomers and veterans report for fall practice, the music will get louder and louder, reaching a crescendo just before the kickoff of the mercifully early home opener against TCU.

But that's still over a month away, and in the meantime the truly fanatical (you can replace "fanatical" with "enlightened" or "evolved" if it makes you feel better about yourself) Husker fan is struggling to quench his or her thirst for information about the Big Red. Other than the half-dozen decent college football magazines, and a few standout Web sites (like this one), good Cornhusker buzz is hard to come by in July. Heck, the other day in church I got excited because I misunderstood and thought the sermon had something to do with Jammal Lord.

The point is, the next few weeks are going to be tough, but we can get through them together. And, to that end, I've jotted down four key questions (and what I think are the answers) about this year's edition of the Cornhuskers. Hopefully this can spark enough conversation, debate and interest to get us through the dog days of summer.

1) Will Dahrran Diedrick be the answer at I-back?

I'll be the first to say Dan Alexander and Correll Buckhalter were underrated, and possibly underutilized at running back. Alexander's combination of power and speed doesn't come around that often (did the guy ever go down on first contact?), and Buckhalter's value was made even more clear when he was drafted in the fourth round by the Philadelphia Eagles.

That said, the Huskers may be able to upgrade the I-back position in 2001. During his freshman and sophomore years, Dahrran Diedrick gave us a glimpse of the natural instincts and shiftiness needed to be a special back. Diedrick hits holes quickly and has the quickness to make defenders miss. Even though he didn't come in with the credentials of Colorado's Marcus Houston or Texas' Cedric Houston (and he can't sing like Whitney Houston), if Coach Solich gives him 25 carries a game, Diedrick could quickly establish himself as the best back in the Big 12.

2) Is Eric Crouch a "national champion" caliber quarterback?

Boy, I hope so. You certainly can't question Eric Couch's toughness or his desire to win. While he may not go down in history as the Huskers' all time best signal caller, he may arguably have the biggest heart. I feel E.C. can lead us to the promised land (Pasadena, Calif.), if Coach Solich can make an effort to take some of pressure off of him.

Remember Tommie Frazier? Good quarterback, won two national championships, got gypped out of the Heisman Trophy. Frazier was so effective because he utilized the talent around him. He didn't carry the ball nearly as much as Crouch, and he was more effective for it. Crouch is a big-time talent, who will be even more effective if he spreads the wealth and isn't expected to win every close game by himself (remember the Alamo Bowl).

If Solich distributes the ball to the running backs a little more, and Crouch injures his shoulder a little less, we could be smelling roses come January.

3) What about the defense? It's going to have to improve a lot before we start talking about national championships.

No doubt about it. During the national championship seasons of 1994, 1995 and 1997, the Cornhuskers fielded some awesome defenses. In fact, over the last ten years, you'd be hard-pressed to come up with team that won it all that didn't have a strong D. Can the 2001 version of the Big Red step up to this level? Possibly.

While the Blackshirts lost Kyle Vanden Bosch and Carlos Polk from what was an inconsistent unit in 2000, there is plenty of talent and speed returning. Young studs like Lannie Hopkins, Willie Amos and Benard Thomas give us some reasons to think optimistically. And, returning vets like Keyuo Craver, Randy Stella and Jeremy Slechta can be counted on to fly to the ball and make tackles.

Ultimately, the answer to this question will be answered by guys like Demoine Adams, Chris Kelsay and Dion Booker. They have the talent to succeed, but have yet to break out and prove they are in the same mold as recent All-Americans like Grant Wistrom, Jared Tomich and Mike Brown.

4) What makes you most nervous about the 2001 Cornhuskers?

A few weeks ago, a summer storm hit a friend's house, causing a power surge that blew out his big screen TV. The thought of that happening right before the football season makes me really nervous. (For insurance purposes, I've purchased a few back-up televisions just in case. It wasn't cheap, but my one-year-old son seems pretty smart, will probably get a scholarship somewhere, and therefore will likely not even need a college fund.)

On the field, I worry a little about the offensive line. I know, every so-called expert will say the Husker offensive line doesn't rebuild, it re-loads. But the early departure of Dominic Raiola, and injuries to the incumbent earthmovers - Chris Loos, Jon Rutherford, and Jon Dawson - has turned this area from a strength to a concern.

That's the bad news. The good news is that all 330 pounds of Toniu Fonoti return, along with the experience of Dave Volk. It's certainly possible that the pieces will fall into place. Prior to the 1997 season, we lost a ton (literally) of starting linemen, but went on to lead the nation in rushing and win a share of the national championship. However, by contrast the 1998 offensive line had a more difficult time replacing the likes of Chris Dishman and Aaron Taylor, and was a large part of the reason the Huskers lost four games that year.

I'm not Chicken Little and the sky isn't falling. History tells us, more often than not, the Yankees have a great bullpen, pizza tastes even better on the second day, and the Huskers will have a dominant offensive line. But until I see them pancaking TCU, Troy State and Notre Dame, I'll be a little nervous.

**Bonus question**
What makes you an expert?

I've been following the Cornhuskers for about 25 years. I'm a UNL graduate, who played on some pretty good intramural flag football teams - who could forget the "Swinging Beef" defense of 1992? And, I'm nearly unbeatable at Intellivision football.

I'm not claiming to be an expert, I'm just a fan like you. Of course, this assumes you are just a fan, and not a coach or member of the team. Tell you what, if you're a fan, let me know your feelings about these questions. And if you're a player or a coachdo you have any extra tickets to the Notre Dame game?

Bill Marks is a professional business writer and longtime Husker fan living in Chandler, Ariz. He can be contacted at billAZhusker@aol.com.