Star QB? Gone. Offensive line? Depleted. Defense? Maligned. Yet here come the Huskers, hammering their way into the nation's elite again. Everyone in Lincoln wants to know if junior QB Jammal Lord can fill Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch's cleats. But before considering that, Frank Solich needs to find out if his offensive line, which lost three starters, including All-America G Toniu Fonoti, can block for Lord and returning I-backs Dahrran Diedrick and Thunder Collins. "We hear it every day," says junior RT Dan Vili Waldrop, a returning starter. "Everyone's questioning us. But we aren't rebuilding. We're getting stronger and better." They'd better keep hitting the weight room -- in the first preseason scrimmage, the Blackshirt D piled 10 sacks on its teammates. Not surprisingly, the defense will rely on a strong line that returns four players with starting experience, including bookend DEs Chris Kelsay and Demoine Adams. But the rest of Nebraska's D underwent a much-needed makeover after last year's ugly end -- 99 points surrendered to Colorado and Miami, the most scored against the Huskers in consecutive games since 1945. Two of three linebackers are new, and the secondary will switch from man-to-man to more zone coverage. But no matter who -- or how -- Nebraska lines up, its fate will ultimately lie in the hands of Lord.
Thunder and Lightning. Out of the backfield and into the end zone. Catchy, isn't it? With Crouch gone, the first step to Tempe is production from I-backs Diedrick, who led the Big 12 with 1,299 rushing yards last season, and Collins, who averaged 6.9 yards per carry. While Crouch backup Jammal Lord gets acquainted with the offense, seniors Diedrick and Collins will run the ball plenty.
So long Keyuo Craver (NFL), Willie Amos (knee surgery) and Randy Landingham (transfer). Senior DeJuan Groce (31 tackles) is the most experienced starter in a green Husker secondary, which means ... more meltdowns? Last year's unit disappeared at the end. It's a big question mark this year, too.
"Their passing game will be better than people think. WR Wilson Thomas will beat you if Lord gets it close. Losing TE Tracey Wistrom hurts almost as much as Crouch because he was a deep threat. Miami was so much faster, they ruined stuff before Nebraska got started. You gotta do lots of doggin', run blitz from everywhere and tackle, because Diedrick is pretty tough."
Mel Kiper Jr.: "They were decimated by graduation on offense. The defense returns some key players, but it isn't a typical Blackshirt D. The schedule is favorable, but I'm hard-pressed to put them in the Top 16."
This article appears in the September 2 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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