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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

Red-White Spring Game, 4.11.15

Head coach Mike Riley speaks to the crowd during halftime of the Red-White Spring Game last year at Memorial Stadium.

At the risk of merely pointing out the obvious, Nebraska has become one heck of an offseason football program.

It's difficult to imagine too many others being significantly better from early January through August.

The Huskers have an imaginative and persistent social-media marketing game, and a serious Friday Night Lights recruiting game.

And, of course, a famously popular Red-White Spring Game.

When a crowd of 70,000-plus materializes Saturday at Memorial Stadium, many in the stands will train their eyes on the northeast part of the field, where as many as 40 high school prospects will gather for what is being widely described as the biggest and best recruiting weekend in program history.

Those recruits will absorb an atmosphere that feels more electric than the fall gameday atmosphere of many programs around the country.

That can't hurt, although how much it helps is open for debate.

After all, Tom Osborne had some fairly decent rosters during his time as Nebraska's head coach even though spring game crowds often were well below 30,000.

He remembers a lot of prospects attending spring games, most of whom drove to town, he said.

However, "It may be more extensive now," he said.

Yeah, just slightly.

Bill Callahan surely would appreciate Mike Riley using the spring game as a prime recruiting tool. Callahan was an aggressive recruiter. He knew how to market the program, as did his boss, Steve Pederson. Say what you want about Pederson, but he knew how to attract a big April crowd, and Callahan knew how to recruit to it, and play to it.

In the 2004 spring game, Callahan's first as Nebraska's head coach, a then-record 61,417 roared with approval as Joe Dailey went deep to tight end Matt Herian on the first play from scrimmage. The pass fell incomplete. But Dailey ended up completing 29 of 49 attempts for 241 yards and four touchdowns.

At that point, our little spring ritual picked up serious steam, and it only seems to increase with time — but with zero conference championships to show for it.

The trick is to somehow make all the offseason buzz pay dividends in autumn and early winter, when it matters most. For now, credit Riley and his staff for fully recognizing and wrapping their arms around the impact the spring game can have on recruiting.

It's just one sign that this staff, if given sufficient time, ultimately may produce the type of results for which Nebraska fans hunger.

Of course, fans want to see significant improvement this coming season. They know good football when they see it, and what they saw in the final two games last season fell well short of "good football."

Still, the spring game is a hot ticket. Think about that. Yes, a quarterback battle and reconstructed defensive coaching staff, led by energetic and laser-focused Bob Diaco, create curiosity. But this discussion is also about sheer fan passion and energy — which I've long felt will ensure Nebraska's program will never completely unravel for an extended period of time.

That said, there are plenty of college football fan bases that ooze passion and energy but fail to show up in droves for spring games. Wisconsin, a heavy favorite to finish first in the Big Ten West Division, will hold its big scrimmage Saturday in front of a crowd of about 10,000, as usual.

My older brother lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and is a fan of Florida State's program, a leading 2017 national-championship contender. The Seminoles open the season against Alabama. Can you imagine the excitement around here if Nebraska were a consensus top-five team that opened against 'Bama?

Florida State, however, drew 26,649 for its spring game last week. If Nebraska drew 26,649 this year, it would be a code-red crisis.

That hasn't always been the case.

On May 5, 1973, a then-record 20,000 fans got their first look at an Osborne-coached Nebraska team. Dave Humm was 13-for-19 passing, but threw an interception that Wonder Monds returned 91 yards for a touchdown.

In Osborne's 10th year in charge, 1982, a crowd of 23,116 came out.

By the time he coached his last spring game, in 1997, a crowd of 42,018 was on hand as Scott Frost completed 7 of 27 passes for 109 yards.

We'll see if this year's crowd tops the record of 80,149 that turned up in 2008, Bo Pelini's first year in charge.

As of Thursday, 70,000 tickets were sold, guaranteeing yet another mega-crowd.

That's unique loyalty. That's passion.

To be sure, that's the type of energy that leaves an impression on recruits, which is mostly what Saturday is about.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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