Commentary

Defensive improvement first order of business for Pelini

Originally Published: December 24, 2007
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne, who built the Cornhuskers into a national powerhouse by winning three national championships at the school, hopes he already has fixed most of the program's problems by changing coaches.

LSU defensive coordinator Bo Pelini is wearing multiple hats as he helps prepare the No. 2 Tigers for the Jan. 7 Allstate BCS National Championship Game against No. 1 Ohio State in the Louisiana Superdome. As soon as that game is over, Pelini will take over as Nebraska's new coach, replacing Bill Callahan, who was fired after the Cornhuskers went 5-7 in his fourth season.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireBo Pelini will need to improve a Nebraska defense which finished last in the Big 12.

"I'm looking forward to the opportunity, and we're going to be moving quickly," Pelini said during the news conference earlier this month in which he was announced as Nebraska's new coach. "We have a lot of work to do and a short amount of time to do it to get this thing heading in the right direction."

Pelini hasn't wasted much time getting his Nebraska program in place. He assembled a coaching staff with strong Nebraska ties. Six of the eight assistants he hired have worked at Nebraska previously. Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Shawn Watson was retained from Callahan's staff, a move that suggests Pelini might opt to keep the pass-happy, West Coast offense already in place.

Ted Gilmore, who coaches the team's wide receivers, also was retained as assistant head coach.

"Offensively, there has been good success here recently," Pelini said. "I think we can add some wrinkles to what has worked well the past few years."

Nebraska's problems in 2007 were clearly on defense. The Cornhuskers ranked last in the Big 12 in total defense, scoring defense and run defense. Nebraska allowed 40 or more points in six games, including an embarrassing 76-39 loss to Kansas.

The Cornhuskers stand to lose each of their three starting linebackers: Bo Ruud, Corey McKeon and Steve Octavien. Free safety Tierre Green and cornerback Cortney Grixby also are leaving.

Pelini hired his brother Carl as the team's defensive coordinator and defensive line coach. Carl Pelini worked as Ohio's defensive coordinator under former Nebraska coach Frank Solich. Coaches Mike Ekeler and John Papuchis worked under Pelini at LSU and will join his staff in Lincoln.

Pelini is expected to install the Tampa 2 defense he learned in the NFL and used at LSU. When Pelini worked as Nebraska's defensive coordinator under Solich in 2003, the Cornhuskers tied a school record by forcing 47 turnovers and ranked second nationally in takeaways. Nebraska compelled only 11 turnovers in 12 games this season.

Offensively, Nebraska returns some good firepower. Quarterback Joe Ganz played remarkably well in the team's last three games after he replaced injured starter Sam Keller, who broke his collarbone against Texas. In the final three games, Ganz had 405 passing yards against Kansas, 510 against Kansas State and 484 against Colorado.

Tailback Marlon Lucky, who set a school record with 75 receptions and ran for 1,019 yards, also is expected back. Top receivers Maurice Purify and Terrence Nunn will have to be replaced.

At least Pelini knows Osborne will be around to help guide him through his first few seasons as a head coach. Osborne, who was named Nebraska's interim athletic director when Steve Pederson was fired midway through the 2007 season, agreed to keep the job through June 2010.

"I'm going to be working as a first-time head coach under a legend," Pelini said. "He's going to be right there as someone I can lean on and ask questions of. One thing I understand in this business and in life is that you never have it all figured out."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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