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July 24, 2006

Nebraska offense ready to take next step

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KANSAS CITY There was much to learn in coach Bill Callahan's West Coast offense, and Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor soaked it all up like a sponge.

Like a big, black-and-blue sponge.

''He did as good a job as any first-year quarterback in this system that I've ever been around at any level, college or pro'' Callahan said on Monday at the Big 12 football media meetings. ''He can absorb so much offense, so much detail, and not only absorb it and execute it, but he can transcend it to other players.''

Taylor absorbed the offense, he absorbed the details and he absorbed the nuances of his position.

Mainly, though, he absorbed punishment.

Taylor was sacked more than 30 times last season and was hit probably twice that many times after releasing the ball. He was sacked nine times by Oklahoma.

Nebraska still closed the season with three consecutive victories to finish 8-4. There's optimism in Lincoln that the Cornhuskers are ready to return to national prominence.

That is, if Taylor can remain upright.

The other quarterbacks on the Cornhuskers roster sophomores Harrison Beck, Beau Davis and Joe Ganz combined to complete one pass for 21 yards last season.

If Taylor were knocked out of action the Cornhuskers could easily take huge steps backward from the progress they achieved last year. Protecting Taylor, who threw for 2,653 yards and 19 touchdowns in his first season at Nebraska, is a top priority.

''We've done some things from a schematic aspect to help us kind of shore up," Callahan said. ''That's where you look as a coach. Are you going to open it up and use five-man and six-man protections or are you going to get conservative and start to use seven- and eight-man protections?"

Old Huskers no doubt long for the days when protecting the quarterback wasn't an issue, and not just because Nebraska ran on almost every play.

Nebraska once produced All-American linemen with assembly-line efficiency, but hasn't had one since Toniu Fonoti in 2001.

The Huskers feel they made significant improvement up front in the second half of last season when Matt Slauson moved into the starting lineup at right tackle for the final three victories.

Center Kurt Mann and guard Greg Austin are returning starters, providing the nucleus of a solid, experienced offensive line.

''We had a lot of young guys (in the offensive line) last year," Taylor said. ''We lost two guys (guard Brandon Koch and tackle Seppo Evwaraye) who were starters, but at the same time we have 10 guys back that have played."

Besides, Callahan said the offensive linemen weren't entirely to blame for the 38 sacks the Huskers allowed.

''When you look at sacks the overall consensus is your line is not doing well when you take a sack," Callahan said. ''But sacks are the extension of everybody that plays on offense. It has to do with the timing of the quarterbacks, the timing of the receivers to get open, and that's critical. If they're not on time, then they're going to disrupt the rhythm of the attack.

Room for Improvement
A look at Nebraska's offensive numbers last season and where they ranked in the Big 12:
Category Avg. Rank
Scoring 24.7 8th
Rushing 96.0 12th
Passing 224.3 5th
Total offense 320.3 11th
''It's on the line, of course. It's on the backs taking the correct pickups and having good pickups and also getting into a check-down position. So, when you look at sacks and the totality of it, it's just not your offensive line."

Maybe not, but when your quarterbacks get dumped 38 times that's a pretty good indicator that something is amiss primarily blocks up front.

It's also significant that Nebraska spent most of the spring emphasizing the running game, and probably not just because the Cornhuskers only averaged 2.7 yards per rush last season.

Running more effectively should reduce the number of hits Taylor absorbs.

Taylor shrugged off questions about protection, choosing instead to praise his receivers and focus on the advantages of having a year's experience in Callahan's system.

''Continuity is very important and we have a lot of players in their second and third years in the system, so we're more comfortable," Taylor said. ''We'll be able to start a lost faster because we have guys that are used to each other. We communicate better.

''There were a lot of things we had to worry about last year that we don't have to worry about this year."

Perhaps, but until it's proven otherwise quarterback protection is still an enormous concern.

Click here for more coverage of 2006 Football Media Days.

For more coverage of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, check out HuskersIllustrated.com.

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