Huskers kick off season with high expectations

When Nebraska coach Bill Callahan attended Big 12 media day last month with several of his players, he made sure to include a side visit to Arrowhead Stadium.

Considering that Nebraska hasn't appeared in the conference championship game since 1999, a trip to this year's title game site probably was a wise decision. Focusing team leaders on the end of the season was more important than sampling the burnt ends at Arthur Bryant's or checking out the new roller coasters at Worlds of Fun.

A pivotal three-game winning streak to finish the 2005 season boosted the team's confidence and has made the Cornhuskers a clear favorite for the North Division title. It's the first time they've opened the season with such high expectations since 2001.

"Our goal is to be back here in December, so it kind of gives you a chance to dream the whole season of what it would be like to play at Arrowhead," senior quarterback Zac Taylor said. "Hopefully, we can be back there. It just gives us something to look forward to."

Eight offensive starters and six more on defense have provided Callahan with a talented returning core. The Huskers have been ranked in most preseason Top 25 polls. Big Red Country also is excited, proudly displaying T-shirts that promise this year's squad will finally "Restore the Order."

"We have tons of talent on this team," defensive end Jay Moore said. "We have an opportunity to go out to take this program where it could be."

It hasn't been that way during most of Callahan's coaching tenure. The Cornhuskers limped to a disappointing 5-6 record in his first season in 2004. It was the program's first losing record in 43 years.

Most Nebraska fans still weren't sold late last season after the Cornhuskers opened 5-4. But a late spurt that culminated with clutch wins over Kansas State and Colorado before a pulsating upset victory over Michigan in the Alamo Bowl stoked the anticipation for the upcoming season.

The late rush gave Big Red Nation faith that Callahan's pass-heavy West Coast offense finally appears to have taken hold.

"I noticed that we were picked to win the North, but that's always our goal," Callahan said. "But we're on schedule, in my opinion. I think we're getting better and improving. We're more consistent, and we're starting to make plays we didn't make our first year.

"Now, how much of that will carry over to the fall? We'll see. But we're a very confident group now."

But there's a fine line between visualizing goals and daydreaming. And if the Cornhuskers needed anything to roust them from thinking too much about future games, the first several days of fall camp served as a jarring reminder.

The first major tremor was felt early in fall camp when backup quarterback Harrison Beck failed to show for the Cornhuskers' second day of practice after a dispute about playing time behind Taylor.

Beck, who had his redshirt pulled in the 10th game last season to orchestrate the Kansas State comeback, left for North Carolina State with his mother taking shots at the Nebraska program on his way out.

His departure leaves sophomores Joe Ganz and Beau Davis, who have one game of game experience between them, as Taylor's backups.

Considering that Taylor was sacked 38 times last season, the Cornhuskers' depth at the position might be Callahan's most pressing offensive concern.

And although Callahan took the high road about the departure of his most-heralded quarterback recruit, he made it clear earlier in camp that one player wouldn't be bigger than any part of his program.

"Character counts," Callahan said. "In the quest to win championships, the focus and maturity of your football team has a lot to do with it. What I'm selling to our players is we don't want off-field distractions or baggage. We don't want guys on our football team that are going to take away from what we want to get accomplished."

The Cornhuskers' secondary took a big hit later in camp when cornerback Zackary Bowman, the team's top projected secondary defender, was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered during a one-on-one drill.

Bowman, a transfer from New Mexico Military Institute, struggled early before coming on late last season. He led the team with 14 pass breakups, including a school-record five deflections in the Alamo Bowl.

The injury has thrust junior college transfer Andre Jones and returning nickel back Titus Brothers into the battle to replace Bowman. Receivers Isaiah Fluellen and Tyrell Spain also were asked to switch to defensive back after the injury.

But Bowman's absence might not be felt until later in the season, when the Cornhuskers' defense is asked to check tall receivers such as Dwayne Jarrett of USC, Todd Blythe of Iowa State, Limas Sweed of Texas and the talented Missouri tight end combination of Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman.

"It's really the toughest position on a football team to develop," Callahan told reporters after the injury. "You're putting guys on an island to play man-to-man and to play bump-and-run coverage, where they are isolated against receivers. And of course, Bowman gave us the big-bodied guy who could match up with the big bodies we're going to see across the Big 12 Conference."

The secondary was already in question because the Cornhuskers were scrambling to find two new safeties. But some of the pressure should be alleviated because of the talent returning on the front seven. The Cornhuskers led the nation in sacks (50) and tackles for losses (140) and might have the best collective personnel in the conference at defensive line and linebackers.

The biggest position battle of camp has been at I-back, where Callahan hopes to build production on last season's biggest offensive weakness. The Cornhuskers, who led the nation in rushing 13 times since 1980, ranked last in the Big 12 and 107th nationally in rushing last season.

Considering they produced a combined 35 rushing yards in consecutive losses to Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas last season, boosting the running game has been a sizable practice priority.

"We have to rush the ball more efficiently," Nebraska offensive line coach Dennis Wagner told the Lincoln Journal Star. "It's not about rushing for 300 yards, it's about rushing for 4 yards a carry and eliminating tackles for losses. That's efficient rushing.

"There are going to be times where the defense doesn't give you the running game, and you've got to be prepared to throw the football. But when you do run it, you've got to be efficient."

Cody Glenn was projected to be the top candidate to replace last year's starter, Cory Ross. But Glenn and heralded sophomore Marlon Lucky shared most of the snaps as co-No. 1 backs in the spring. Brandon Jackson and junior college transfer Kenny Wilson have entered the fray in the past several weeks.

"All the I-backs are great competitors," Callahan said. "It will be fun to see them compete for a role. The competition is wide-open, and there is no spot guaranteed on the team. Everyone is competing and earning their role."

The Cornhuskers face a challenging schedule; they are the only team in the country that plays both USC and Texas. The Huskers will visit Iowa State, where they haven't won since 2000, and Kansas State, where they haven't won since 1996.

But even with all Nebraska's questions, its opponents might have more. Missouri and Kansas are breaking in new quarterbacks. Kansas State and Colorado are breaking in new coaches. And Iowa State must rebuild its defense, as well as show it can close victories after squandering a chance at division titles because of kicking woes the past two seasons. The North appears to be the Cornhuskers' for the taking.

"We're confident not only in our coaches and the game plans we're going to have, but also in the guys we're playing with," Nebraska linebacker Stewart Bradley told the Journal Star. "We love the [media and fan] expectations that we are going to do well."

Tim Griffin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.