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August 27, 2008

The Nebraska Cornhuskers lost their football identity during Bill Callahan's four years at the helm. They will forge a new one this year. What will it be?

Bo Pelini reminds many of Bob Devaney's players of their old coach. Two months ago, I wrote about the similar circumstances that surrounded Devaney's and Pelini's arrivals in Lincoln. The Bobfather believed that defense and ball control win games. Will that be a hallmark of the Pelini regime as well?

Will they be the old Cornhuskers of the smashmouth power option? That is the way the nation best remembers the Big Red. And the offensive line could well be the strength of this year's team. I can still hear ABC-TV's Keith Jackson paying tribute to those "big ol' corn-fed Nebraska boys" up front. Will we hear something similar three months from now? After all, pancake blocks are once again an official stat on the NU coaching staff.

Will they be the new, blended Huskers — a high-octane hybrid of Shawn Watson's West Coast offense and the pro-style I formation that Tom Osborne used so well as in the 1970s? (Remember Dave Humm and Vince Ferragamo throwing deep to Johnny Rodgers, Frosty Anderson and Chuck Malito?) If you're under 40, you may not know that as offensive coordinator, Osborne used to make Devaney nervous because he wanted to throw the ball so much.

But Pelini built his reputation as a defensive coordinator, and Osborne, in his new role as athletic director, said that one of the major reasons he hired Pelini was his ability to rebuild Nebraska's defense, which last year gave up a school-record numbers of points, total yards and first downs. Will the defense swarm and attack? Will it show the passion that its new coach is famous for? Will "Blackshirts" once again become a meaningful word among college football fans?

The Huskers' strength coach, James Dobson, designed off-season workouts to build explosiveness and speed, and he insisted that many of the players lose weight. That could set the stage for a dramatic shift away from Kevin Cosgrove's "read and react" style of defense that he brought from the Big Ten.

All those things are important, but here's the one word that stands above all others:


At 1.7 million people, Nebraska has the smallest population of any Big 12 state. It will always have to scramble to get a top 20 recruiting class. One of the hallmarks of the Osborne era was his ability to turn average recruiting classes and walk-ons into teams that played with heart and desire and finished in the nation's top 10. Pelini's teams don't have to run the same offense as Osborne's did to win games, but they need to play with the same heart. If they do that, the Huskers will almost immediately win back the solidly unified fan base that they enjoyed for so many decades.

Right now, Nebraska is the enigma of the college football world. The nation doesn't quite know what to think about the Huskers' potential this year. Kirk Herbstreit, writing for ESPN.com, predicts that Pelini will be a success right out of the chute and sees the Huskers as a dark horse candidate to win the Big 12 North title if Missouri falters.

On the other hand, Neill Woelk of the Boulder Daily Camera says the Huskers will pay dearly for Pelini's lack of head coaching experience. Woelk predicts the Huskers will lose eight games and that "Corn fans will be longing for the days of Frank Solich." Most prognosticators have the Huskers penciled somewhere in between.

Solich is gone. So is Callahan. For the first time since 1949, the Huskers have had three head coaches within a five-year span, and the identity of Nebraska football is ready to be remade. If the Big Red simply takes on the personality of its new coach — aggressive, no-nonsense, short on words and long on action — there will be a lot of satisfied people around the Husker Nation.

Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at tad.stryker@gmail.com. | Archive