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Q&A with Frank Solich
By Terry Bowden
Special to BCSfootball.com
Bowden's Weekly Chat Show

ABC college football analyst Terry Bowden chatted with Nebraska football coach Frank Solich to talk about the Cornhuskers' expectations, the strength of the Big 12 Conference and his role as the team's offensive playcaller.

Terry Bowden:
Many are suggesting that the Big 12 is the strongest conference from top to bottom this year. How strong do you believe the Big 12 is, and what does this mean for the league?

Frank Solich:
Eric Crouch
Eric Crouch says he is healthy again, and should be able to give Nebraska a more balanced threat.
Again it will be a very strong conference. I felt that last year that it may have been as strong as there was. Certainly Oklahoma proved it was the best team in the country. And as you go down through the Big 12, you see a lot of teams that have outstanding athletes.

I think it will be a conference where there are four or five teams that will start the year off thinking they may have a chance at the whole thing. You are really hard-pressed to find that in any other conference.

Terry Bowden:
I have selected Nebraska as the favorite in the Big 12 North. What must Nebraska do specifically this year to win the conference championship and be a contender for the national championship?

Frank Solich:
We need to be a typical Nebraska defense. Last year, we were a little bit off the mark on that end of it. If you look at us statistically, we were not a very imposing defensive football team. And that is somewhat unusual for us. We did not create turnovers. Consequently, that phase of the game was down some. And also, we were not a great specials teams team, which is unusual for Nebraska.

We led our conference in scoring offense, total offense, rushing offense. We only punted the ball 42 times, so we were able to move the ball and put points on the board. We averaged something like 44 points a game. So what we need to do is bring our defense and special teams back into play again. We think we have a chance to do that. We have some excellent young talent. With the preseason game (on Aug. 25 against TCU in the Pigskin Classic), that will give us four games prior to the start of our conference. It will give us an opportunity for our young players to really develop. With that, I think we can be a really good football team.

Terry Bowden:
Let's start with your offense. When you talk about the Nebraska offense, you start with Eric Crouch. He's a Heisman candidate. What is Eric like, on and off the field?

Frank Solich:
He's just a tremendous person. In Eric, we have as competitive a player as you are going to find. The last two years, he has played hurt, as he has come down through the stretch of the seasons. He has had to have a couple of surgeries in the offseason. He's healthy again and ready to go. He has been tremendous in running our offense ever since he showed up here on campus.

He's really a great person off the field. In fact, one of the problems he has -- and maybe the only problem he's got -- is telling people no. It's tough for him to turn down requests. He gets so many requests out there. But he's great in terms of giving things back to the community.

We think we have the whole package in Eric.

Terry Bowden:
He's the heart and soul of your running attack. And it's a running attack that led the nation again last year. But some people say that if you only had a dominant I-back, it would be that much better. You lost Dan Alexander and Correll Buckhalter. Who's out there? Who's going to fill the role as the I-back this year?

He is kind of the old throwback, a great inside-type runner with great feet. He will get the yards after contact. He has the great vision. He has the ability to make you miss. He just wants the ball every chance.
Frank Solich, on Dahrran Diedrick

Frank Solich:
Dahrran Diedrick will be the guy who will take over the starting I-back spot for us. Dahrran has experience. He has played in crucial games, and done an excellent job. We feel he can be a great player for us. He's the type of back who can carry the ball 30-35 times if you want him to. He may have a chance to do that. We will see how it all develops.

We don't have a great deal of experience behind Dahrran, so it will be a guy who has limited experience but probably a guy who has talent that will back him up. Thunder Collins is one player who has shown flashes of ability. We will see how it all plays out for us in terms of depth.

But Terry, you'd love Dahrran. He is kind of the old throwback, a great inside-type runner with great feet. He will get the yards after contact. He has the great vision. He has the ability to make you miss. He just wants the ball every chance. We think we have a good one.

Terry Bowden:
It's a catch-22 being a great running team. The more you run, the more you see nine-man fronts. Eventually, you have to be able to throw the ball over the top. And it's an area that you have looked to improve. How have you worked on your down-the-field passing attack and who are the potential stars of the group?

Frank Solich:
One thing that hurt us a little bit in throwing the ball down the field was Eric having a shoulder injury in the middle of the season and on. That certainly caused us problems in the throwing game. Right now, we are not allowed to be out there supervising him, but he is getting his shoulder back in shape, throwing the ball. He is saying that he is throwing it real well and the shoulder feels great. That alone, if he is healed up, will become a strong area for us.

He has a tremendous arm and he has great experience. We should be able to be an excellent deep throwing team. We have set up a lot of play-action passes for the deep ball. When you think about a big-play receiver for us, you have to think about Tracey Wistrom, who is a returning All-Big 12 tight end for two years in a row. He's coming now into his senior season. Tracey has been a great player all around for us as far as team leadership, being able to block from the tight end spot and has been a great receiver for us. He's been a real threat in terms of the passing game.

We lost a lot of our receivers, but we do have some very young, very good receivers, who will play an important role in what we get done this year. Because certainly if we continue to run the ball with the success that we have had -- Wilson Thomas at split end, and Ben Zajicek, a redshirt freshman, at split end -- will come into play for us. John Gibson, who is returning for another year, coming off of a knee surgery received in the bowl game, if he gets back to health, he will be an excellent player for us at the wideout spot.

We have some people there who can make it happen. And we believe we have the quarterback who can also make it happen.

Terry Bowden:
You said that you were not as pleased with your defense. When Nebraska has been its most dominant, the defense has been just as good as its offense. What was missing last year, and do you have the ability to get it back this season?

Frank Solich:
When we start to play our defensive front -- and when you play the 4-3 with those two inside people lined up on the guards -- you better have some great people there. We think we have talented guys there, but we were really hit by a rash of injuries, so our front was not as strong and physical, we were not as deep because of the injuries as in years past. We think that has changed in a years time because we have gotten those people healed up and they will be ready to go. And we have a great group of young players coming in. So what was not really a strong point last year, we think it will be one of our strongest points this coming season.

We have a group of players on the defensive side who can run. They are aggressive. They will make some mistakes early on. We are hoping we can overcome some of those mistakes early on by scoring points and making the big plays with team speed and have our special teams play a role in each of the early ballgames. When you have a defense that can run and is aggressive, you generally have a chance.

Terry Bowden:
You stop the run with the front seven. Who is going to replace guys like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Loran Kaiser and Carlos Polk?

Frank Solich:
Chris Kelsay came in here as an excellent player out of high school and has gotten better and better every year. He reminds us of Kyle Vanden Bosch in terms of work ethic and making himself better every season. We think he will certainly step up and come to the plate.

Jeremy Slechta, who had an injury last year and got a chance to share of the season, but was never really healthy at any time in the season. Jason Lohr, who was hurt right from the start of the season, on the defensive line, is now healthy again. Ryon Bingham is a young player who missed last year that we were counting on. He missed the entire season.

You start to look at what we were without last year, and it's understandable why we might have bent more than usual last year.

Terry Bowden:
As much as we talk about the run, in the Big 12 now, two teams you are going to have to meet if you go all the way are Texas and Oklahoma, and they are going to beat you more with the pass than the run. Your secondary could be considered a true strength of your defense, but what does it have to do better to beat a team that throws like Oklahoma.

Frank Solich:
Keyuo Craver
Keyuo Craver headlines Nebraska's secondary this season.
As Oklahoma went through the season, teams began to play them differently, and started to have some success against them. Certainly, if you look at the talent they had -- they had excellent talent -- and they had a great scheme, and the coach did a great job with those guys. But I think you need to mix it up a bit. We played against those guys in a lot of man coverage, and tried to rush the passer and blitz him quite often. Of course, they did a great job of picking things up, and a great job releasing the ball and preventing you from getting to the quarterback.

The teams that have had success have been able to mix things up on them. We have the ability to do that. We have the kind of corners that if we want to play man-to-man, we can do it, and yet, if we want to put them into a zone, they have the ability to break on the ball and maybe make the big turnover with the interception. I think we will be stronger up the middle at free safety and strong safety. We have guys there with great speed now, and guys who are aggressive and make big plays against the run and the pass.

Terry Bowden:
In the 16 years that I was a head coach, I always called my own plays, but there were days when there didn't seem enough time. Have you ever wanted to turn it over to someone else because of the difficulty there is for a head coach to do everything?

Frank Solich:
There is no question that has crossed my mind. You are right. This job requires you to wear so many hats, and if you stick on the hat of offensive coordinator, your whole day and really into the evening is spent on game planning, and watching film of your practices and of your opponents. There are so many other issues that have to be dealt with as the head coach, I think it does stretch you thin. And it sometimes doesn't leave you the kind of time to really spend as much time with individual players. At some point down the road, that's going to happen.

Right now, I think I'm our best bet going into the next season. I do understand how it is. It's tough to relinquish that duty, but I think there will be a time when that will happen. But it's not there yet.

Terry Bowden:
With Tom Osborne, you are following one of the legendary giants of the game. Does it ever get easy living in the shadows of such an outstanding coach?

Frank Solich:
I don't think it has gotten any easier. Certainly, what he accomplished in his years here was remarkable. He basically has put the expectations to a point, where virtually every year, people feel we should step on the field and win a national championship. Of course, the difficulty of that is the parity of college football is here with 85 scholarships. You have everybody with great athletes. You need to have everything going extremely well and you need to have a few breaks in order to get it all done.

Then you put on top of that we are in a conference that has just gotten tougher and tougher. And is now arguably the best conference in the country. So it's not been easy.

Yet, how he stepped down and how he has handled things since the moment he stepped down, he has made it as easy as possible for me to take over for him, and do as good a job as possible. I am certainly delighted to be in charge of this program, and really looking for this next season.

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