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Huskers quickly adapt to new offense

8/16/2004

The news spread through the Nebraska football program first. And like the rest of the Husker pass catchers, tight end Matt Herian couldn't believe it.

Bill Callahan? The West Coast Offense? In Lincoln?

"I figured we'd be passing all the time," Herian said. "Wide open. Balls flying over the place. I couldn't wait."

Eight months later, eight months after Callahan arrived in Big Red Country and brought his pass-heavy offense with him, Herian realizes he was getting ahead of himself. Sure there are drastic changes -- especially considering the I-formation, option-laden attack the Huskers had run for years -- but Callahan's offense isn't exactly the Fun n' Gun.

The entire scheme is predicated on balance. When Callahan was offensive coordinator in 2000, the Oakland Raiders led the NFL in rushing. Two years later, as head coach, Callahan's Raiders led the league in passing, throwing the ball 65 times in one game and rushing it 60 times in another.

"It wasn't what we expected," Herian said. "We're going to run the ball just as much as we're going to pass it. And if it's working, we'll run the ball even more. Everything is based on balance and fundamentals."

Which is difficult, considering Callahan is accustomed to having 35 to 40 days of training camp to prepare. This year, the Huskers have 29 practice dates between the opening of camp and their first game, Sept. 4 against Western Illinois. Only five of those are two-a-days.

"It's a lot to get accomplished in a very short window," Callahan said.

But if fall practice goes anything like spring, Nebraska should be OK. Callahan asked three things of his team in the spring -- that they be adaptable, flexible and compatible. The offense was installed at a high-volume, high-intensity rate -- the same schedule Callahan used in the pros. His new team listened. And responded.

"We had a hard time adjusting," Herian said. "When you first look at it, you take a step back and wonder, 'How are we going to learn this?' But the more and more we saw of it, the more and more it grew on us."

Said Callahan: "I was proud that we could go in there, bring a system in there that's been proven and undisputed in so many senses, orient the players and get such a positive reception from them. It made for a great foundation."

For the success to continue in the fall, Callahan will need to find a quarterback. It's the most important position in the West Coast offense and the coach already admitted he doesn't like rotating the position. Going into fall camp, the favorite is Joe Dailey, who was recruited by the Frank Solich regime to run the option.

"Everything we do, from installing plays to the way we meet, is centered around the quarterback," Callahan said. "In Joe, I want to see retention factor and command. I want to see him come into camp, take control of the offense, take command of the unit and proceed rapidly."

The other major adjustment will come on the offensive line. While the previous coaching staff focused on man-to-man run blocking, Callahan's offense is built around an offensive line that does more zone and pass blocking.

"For the most part, our guys have adopted well," Callahan said. "But it's a tough skill to master. Even the best players I've been around can't master it all. You don't grow up as a youngster, go in the backyard and say, 'Let's see who can pass protect?' It takes time, skill and patience."

As will the entire offense as a whole. Until then, the Huskers will rely on their defense to carry the load. A defense that's spent much of its offseason scratching its head as well.

"When we run (the new offense) against our defense, it confuses them to no end," Herian said. "I can't wait to see how opponents will adapt to it as well."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.