One In A Series
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ The rainy weather was a contrast to a bright forecast given by Coach Tom Osborne and the 140-plus Nebraska football players he greeted to begin the 1987 season.
Showers forced the annual media and fan photo day activities indoors. But Osborne indicated better days are ahead.
″The athletic talent is there. If we can avoid injury and if the attitude is right, we can have a good football team,″ said Osborne, whose team starts practice Thursday.
Osborne’s preseason assessment has been similar in each of his previous 14 seasons. His teams have never won fewer than nine games.
The ’87 Cornhuskers return five starters on offense and seven on defense, headed by All-Big Eight Conference I-back Keith Jones, quarterback Steve Taylor, all-conference defensive end Broderick Thomas and defensive tackle Neil Smith. Jones, fastest Cornhusker ever with a 4.33-second time in the 40-yard dash, is defending Big Eight rushing champion and led the league with 14 touchdowns in 1986.
Taylor was the Sugar Bowl’s most valuable player on New Year’s Day, when he completed 11 of 19 passes for 110 yards and rushed for 63 more yards on 20 tries. He threw for one touchdown and rushed for another.
″The skill positions are in pretty good shape,″ Osborne said. He said that Taylor and backup Clete Blakeman give the Huskers something they’ve lacked the past two years - quality, experienced depth at quarterback.
The only offensive position of question is fullback, where projected starter Micah Heibel is coming off a foot injury that threatened to sideline him.
Jones, Tyreese Knox and Terry Rodgers will provide an explosive trio at I- back, Rod Smith and Morgan Gregory offer split end speed-burners and the tight-end tandem of Tom Banderas and Todd Millikan will be among the best in the nation, Osborne said.
He said the most interesting position could be wingback, where Dana Brinson, Hendley Hawkins, Jamie Worden and Von Sheppard will be battling for playing time.
The offensive line returns only one starter, right guard John McCormick. But it will be improved over last year once such players as Andy Keeler, Bob Sledge, John Nichols, Jake Young and Kevin Lightner become acquainted with playing together, the coach said.
″Overall defensively we have good athletic ability and speed,″ Osborne said. ″We’ll be strongest up front.″
Tackles Smith and Lee Jones will play on either side of middle guard Lawrence Pete.
″Neil is probably as good a player as we’ve ever had at defensive tackle,″ Osborne said. That list includes John Dutton, Larry Jacobson, Mike Fultz, Jim Skow and Chris Spachman.
″Broderick Thomas will be a great player,″ Osborne said.
Playing opposite Thomas at the right defensive end will be Jeff Jamrog, a two-year letterman senior, and sophomores Jeff Mills and Kenny Walker.
Osborne said inexperience could be a problem early for the quick and talented linebacking corps. LeRoy Etienne and Randall Jobman will be on the strong side, while weak-side linebackers will be Steve Forch and Doug Welniak.
Dante Wiley, a junior linebacker who also may be the team’s top punter, was the only academic question for the Huskers, Osborne said. Wiley won’t practice with the team until his academic status is known around the end of the week, the coach said.
Graduation took away one of the best linebacking tandems in years at Nebraska.
″We lost most of our experience with (Kevin) Parsons and (Marc) Munford,″ Osborne said of his graduated starters of 1986. ″The athletic ability is there (in 1987). LeRoy Etienne could be one of the finest linebackers we’ve had here.″
In the secondary, Osborne said, Brian Washington, Jeff Tomjack, Charles Fryar, Tim Jackson and Mark Blazek will be counted on until depth can be developed with converted quarterbacks Wendell Wooten and McCathorn Clayton.
Osborne said one of the biggest challenges this season will be a schedule that includes four or five teams he says are capable of top 10 finishes nationally.
Top foes the Cornhuskers play are UCLA, Arizona State and South Carolina during the non-conference slate, and Oklahoma, Colorado and Oklahoma State in the Big Eight.
″I guess we could feel a little more comfortable on defense but overall, we will be OK, I think,″ Osborne said.