March 18, 2009
Finding and keeping a good quarterback can be a very elusive concept. Just ask a Denver Bronco fan. But more on that later.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers have a much-anticipated quarterback competition that begins in earnest March 25, when spring drills get underway. I don't know enough yet about the three main rivals to discuss their relative merits. Instead, I'll lay out the characteristics the Huskers need in their new signal-caller. Later in the spring, I'll evaluate the race.
You can summarize it all in one sentence. The Huskers need a winner. But what does that look like? There is more than one way to flesh it out.
It's probable that Bo Pelini and Shawn Watson will make Nebraska into more of a power running team, with the heavy sets that disappeared after the Missouri game last fall making their reappearance.
In 2007, Bill Callahan's last season, the Huskers were a passing team that couldn't run. In Pelini's first season, the Huskers were a passing team that could run fairly well. Look for that evolution to continue. With a new quarterback under center, Nebraska likely will become a running team that can pass. Whether or not the Big Red returns to an option-style attack will be one of the more interesting stories of 2009.
The offensive line should be a major strength of the 2009 Huskers and Roy Helu and Quentin Castille return at I-back, which will take some pressure off the new quarterback, whoever he turns out to be. It's likely that Watson will use a fullback at least occasionally this year – probably for at least a few plays on most drives. With a pair of Makovickas on the roster and C.J. Zimmerer coming to the Huskers as a scholarship recruit, look for more use of the fullback in 2010.
Nebraska needs a quarterback who can move well in the pocket and become a threat to pick up first downs with his feet. All three of the contestants – junior Zac Lee, redshirt freshman Kody Spano and true freshman Cody Green – are dual-threat quarterbacks with decent speed. The winner will be able to run the ball better and more often than Joe Ganz did. He won't be a burner like Baylor's Robert Griffin, but hopefully he'll become at least as good a passer.
Nebraska could be the oddity of the Big 12 this fall, because defense and special teams will be the strength of this Husker team. With a new quarterback running the offense, it will be important for the Huskers to increase the number of takeaways, and that's likely to happen given the improvement in speed that should be on the field. That plus a full year of experience running Pelini's scheme should make everyone more comfortable on the defensive side of the ball.
Regardless of how well the defense does, the first-year quarterback will be brought along slowly and asked to keep his turnovers to a minimum. Unless one of the three has a huge edge in talent – which seems unlikely at this point – turnovers and decision-making capabilities probably will major factors in deciding the competition.
Of course, there are the intangibles and the issue of character. After cheering Zac Taylor and Ganz, Nebraskans have grown attached to quarterbacks with guts and heart. Lots of heart. That needs to continue. Even the Huskers' other two quarterbacks in the past five years – Joe Dailey and Sam Keller – had plenty of character. Both had adversity to deal with (some of it their own making), but both handled it with class. Dailey had to deal with a radical shift in offensive philosophy and carried an incredible amount of pressure after being voted a team captain as a sophomore. He took most of the blame on his shoulders as Nebraska slumped to a 5-6 season in 2004. Keller is sometimes bashed by Husker bloggers who say Callahan handed him the starting job in 2007 over Ganz without cause, but Keller played with a lot of determination and, like Dailey, was a standup guy when it came to taking responsibility for the way the Husker offense played.
Contrast that to Jay Cutler of the Denver Broncos, who, at age 25, has more than twice the talent of Dailey and Keller, but less than half the class those two showed as collegians. Contrast the way that Dailey and Keller gave straightforward answers to tough postgame questions after disappointing losses with the way the petulant Cutler tries to avoid the media when he has a bad game.
Cutler could stand to take a few lessons in character from Dailey, who had to accept the challenge of adapting to a much more radical change of offensive philosophy (from Frank Solich's option to Callahan's West Coast offense) than Cutler will have to endure switching from the Mike Shanahan regime to Josh McDaniels. That is, if Cutler can be convinced to play for the Broncos at all this year.
Desire to play will not be a problem in Lincoln. Patrick Witt, who was No. 2 at quarterback last fall for NU, has weeded himself out of the competition. The rest all are eager to show what they can do. Pelini and the Huskers will be looking for a first-year quarterback who will show character while becoming a big-time winner on the field – characteristics that are rare indeed.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. | Archive