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Pro-style offense part of Nebraska's new normal

3/26/2015

Nebraskans might be landlocked in their home state, but they're no strangers to sea change.

They saw Nebraska leave behind its history in the Big Eight/Big 12 for a new home in the Big Ten. They watched the program move from two handpicked successor coaches -- Tom Osborne and Frank Solich -- to an outsider (Bill Callahan) doomed by a historically bad defense, and another coach (Bo Pelini) doomed by a combustible personality and four-loss seasons. Their most painful adjustment has been the drop in prestige, as Nebraska hasn't won its league since 1999. Although Husker fans still invest greatly and demand great things from the program, the pragmatic ones know a national title run likely isn't in the immediate future.

The next reminder of Nebraska's new reality will come this fall when the offense takes the field. With rare exceptions, the Huskers are opting out of the option, the system that defined the program and its success for decades.

New Nebraska coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf are longtime pro-style practitioners. Langsdorf spent last season coaching Eli Manning and the New York Giants quarterbacks after nine years as Riley's offensive coordinator at Oregon State.

"We’ve taken some things from the Giants and implemented them here, and then a mixture of stuff we’ve done in our history with Oregon State," Langsdorf said last week. "We even go back to our New Orleans [Saints] days when Mike and I were there [in 2002]. The coordinator in New York [Ben McAdoo], I was with him in New Orleans.

"We've combined a lot of different ideas over the years."

This isn't the first time Nebraska has veered from the option. Callahan brought in the West Coast offense from the Oakland Raiders. But Pelini used a scheme that featured option elements, mobile quarterbacks and prolific I-backs like Roy Helu, Rex Burkhead and Ameer Abdullah.

"You look back at their history, they were a wishbone-option team," Langsdorf said. "We're probably not going to get a whole lot into that."

It's yet another reminder that times have changed in Husker Country.

"The offense that we ran is very obsolete," said former Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier, who triggered the option attack that helped the Huskers win consecutive national titles in 1994 and 1995. "There's not very many teams that still run option football. The ones that are still running it are very successful at it. Look at Georgia Tech, Air Force, Navy, teams like that, they're having success.

"But to get the type of player teams want, you have to change the offense to fit their style. That's what Nebraska has been doing over the years."

Frazier has followed Riley's offenses for years and is impressed with his schematics and player development skills. He also thinks Langsdorf's NFL experience will help Nebraska's quarterbacks, who in his mind have "the biggest challenge" in adjusting.

They will be under center more and running less, although Langsdorf wants to use their athleticism on bootlegs and sprint outs. The most significant shift comes in the way the quarterbacks must read defenses. So far this spring, it has resulted in more interceptions than the coaches would like.

"A lot of it's not knowing which defender to key or which safety to look at," Langsdorf said. "They're throwing the ball late because their footwork's not right, not throwing it on time or they're not anticipating throws. It’s an accuracy issue but it’s also a read-progression issue.

"All the stuff is probably a little tougher adjustment for them, but everyone’s doing a good job of working at it."

The Husker I-backs and offensive linemen could remain the big men on campus, as they have for decades. Riley had eight 1,000-yard rushers and six players with more than 250 carries at Oregon State, including Steven Jackson with a nation-high 350 in 2003. But Nebraska's wide receivers, who saw a spike in production under Pelini, will be an even bigger part of the offense now.

Riley had 10 receivers eclipse 1,000 yards at Oregon State, including Biletnikoff Award winners Mike Hass and Brandin Cooks. Nebraska never has had a 1,000-yard receiver. Its single-season receptions record is 63.

"We’re probably running a few things downfield a little bit more," Langsdorf said. "We're teaching them some timed routes where they have to count some steps and do some things a little differently than they have in the past."

Nebraska's offense will be doing quite a few things differently in its quest to recapture the program's past glory. Frazier, who lives in Omaha, thinks Husker fans will be fine with the new approach.

"Nebraska fans are very loyal to the program," Frazier said. "They just want to see a team play hard. Nebraska's a blue-collar state and they want the football program to represent them that way. Being almost 20 years since I played there, almost 12 years since Coach Solich left, I don't think the style of offense is really going to matter.

"Being productive, being consistent and playing hard matters more than anything."