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T A D    S T R Y K E R
April 14, 2009

Flash back to 1996: Nebraska's offense rebuilds under a new quarterback – Scott Frost, who transferred from Stanford and has never thrown a pass for the Cornhuskers prior to his junior season.

Flash forward to 2009: Nebraska's offense rebuilds under a new quarterback – Zac Lee, a transfer from a California junior college who has thrown only two passes for the Huskers prior to his junior season.

Lee, who seems destined to start the season at quarterback for the Big Red, may have a tough time moving the chains and scoring points this fall if history repeats itself. Let's take a quick look at how other first-year Husker quarterbacks have fared lately.

In 1998, Nebraska tried three rookie quarterbacks (sophomore Bobby Newcombe, redshirt freshman Eric Crouch and senior Monte Christo all saw playing time). The offense was erratic all season long but the Huskers finished a respectable 9-4, although they scored fewer than 21 points in four of their last six games.

In fact, "erratic" is a common theme when you look at how first-year NU quarterbacks have done since true freshman Tommie Frazier led the offense to more than 30 points in five of his seven starts in 1992. Jammal Lord, Joe Dailey, and Sam Keller all struggled at times. So did Zac Taylor, although he grasped Bill Callahan's West Coast offense about halfway through his junior season and quickly became the main bright spot of the Callahan era.

The moral of the story? Don't pin high hopes on a first-year quarterback – especially not early in the season.

Lee seems to have a lot in common with Frost, who was a threat to run and pass, and the upcoming season has a lot in common with 1996, starting with an early road test. Frost, who was derided nationally for his unorthodox passing motion, struggled throwing the ball early in his career. He flunked his first big test, and the Huskers lost 19-0 at Arizona State. Then again, Frost learned quickly from that painful lesson, and led the Huskers to nine consecutive wins and an 11-2 record in his junior season, capped off by an Orange Bowl victory. He went on to bigger and better things as a senior.

Lee will face a potentially tougher challenge at Virginia Tech on Sept. 19 than Frost did in Tempe 13 years ago. The Hokies have finished in the Top 10 in total defense each of the last five seasons. If Lee struggles in Blacksburg, and hears the criticism that Frost did, will he be able to bounce back? Or will up-and-coming freshman Cody Green learn the offense well enough to replace him at midseason?

Overall, because it has to go on the road to play its three top rivals for the Big 12 North title, NU's schedule will be tougher this fall than it was in 1996. That's another reason not to overreach with your expectations. If Lee is not effective throwing the ball, he will typically face eight or nine defenders in the box, as Frost often did.

If that happens, we'll quickly find out how much the Husker offensive line has improved over last fall. It does not have the talent or experience as the 1996 Huskers, who were coming off back-to-back national titles and boasted Aaron Taylor, Chris Dishman and Adam Treu as headliners, but it will be strong enough to improve upon last year's 169.8 yards rushing per game.

This year's o-line has a lot of potential and a decent amount of depth, especially if Ricky Henry emerges at right guard and if junior right tackle Jaivorio Burkes gets a health clearance for fall camp. If it meshes well, avoids injuries and its chemistry is good (that's a whole lot of "ifs"), the o-line play will unleash Roy Helu Jr. and Quentin Castille for a strong running game, which would make it a lot of fun to be a Husker fan this fall. But there's no way this team will average 42 points per game like the 1996 team did.

This year's Husker receiving corps is a big question mark. Tight end Mike McNeill, with 33 career receptions, is the headliner, and Dreu Young and Ryan Hill also have experience. Two redshirt freshmen – Ben Cotton and Kyler Reed – have shown some skill. Wide receivers Menelik Holt and Niles Paul have not yet proven themselves, but must become leaders if NU is to have an effective passing game. Of course, Paul's recent arrest for DUI makes this position even more unsettled.

Nebraska will be counting on an unproven quarterback and unproven receivers. That could blow up a lot of drives, especially if penalties are a problem, as they tend to be with first-year quarterbacks. First-and-15 will be a lot harder to overcome than it was for Joe Ganz and the sure-handed Nate Swift and Todd Peterson. The short- and mid-range passing game probably will not be as sharp as it has been the last few years.

On the positive side: the new crop of pass catchers, including JUCO transfer Brandon Kinnie, sophomore Curenski Gilleylen and Khiry Cooper, should have more speed than NU had last season. If Lee can hit a deep pass to somebody besides McNeill once in awhile, it will do a lot to open things up for the running game.

The biggest question about the Nebraska offense this fall is whether it can become effective at both the pass and the run. Whenever Bo Pelini or offensive coordinator Shawn Watson is pressed about what they want the offense to become, both tend to use some variation of the word, "balanced." So how balanced will it become?

And what will the offense become? Will it be a West Coast offense that keeps emphasizing the short passing game but does a good job of running off-tackle out of one-back sets? Or, given the Huskers' depth at tight end, will Watson load up with an extra blocker and run out of the I formation? Will it do both? Whatever the offensive set is, look for more quarterback runs than we've seen since Frank Solich prowled the sidelines.

Many Nebraskans yearn for a return to the power option days of the 1980s and '90s. But remember, there were a few drawbacks. I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard Bob Griese or some other TV analyst remind me that the Osborne/Solich option offense was "not built to come from behind." True enough.

So can Nebraska develop a power offense that can also convert a third-and-8 pass regularly? Sounds good in theory, but it'll be hard to accomplish with as many unproven components as the Huskers will be depending on.

Bottom line: Although the situation is similar to the one the Huskers faced in 1996, this year's offense needs to develop an identity and probably won't be as potent. It's a good thing the defense and special teams should be much improved over last year's – the Huskers may have to win a lot of 21-17 and 24-21 games to claim the Big 12 North this fall.


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 [email protected]. | Archive