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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.

Nebraska football, first day of spring practice, 3/4

Nebraska wide receiver Stanley Morgan (right) enjoys a moment with teammate Keyan Williams during the first spring football practice on Saturday at Hawks Championship Center.

Chris Jones took a knee and bowed his head in prayer as "Eye of the Tiger" blared in the background.

Yes, this was serious business.

It felt like something important was about to happen.

Jones bowed his head at precisely 10:45 a.m. Saturday, as he took the field 15 minutes before the scheduled start of Nebraska's football practice at Hawks Championship Center. It wasn't just any practice. I kept telling people it was a historic one. They kept telling me to relax. Whatever. It's not every year that the Huskers enter spring with a genuine battle for starting quarterback.

In fact, you have to go back to 2010, when Taylor Martinez prevailed over Zac Lee and Cody Green.

Plus, it was the early 1990s when Nebraska last switched defensive schemes, going from a 5-2 (or 3-4) to a 4-3.

Perhaps you've heard, the Huskers this spring are shifting to a 3-4 under new coordinator Bob Diaco.

Bottom line, 2004 was the last time Nebraska underwent as significant of changes as this year on both sides of the ball. In 2004, Bill Callahan took over as head coach and implemented a West Coast offense, while Kevin Cosgrove's defense operated much differently from previous coordinator Bo Pelini's.

Folks may cringe as they recall Callahan's first spring. Dual-threat quarterback Joe Dailey, bless his heart, was thrown to the West Coast wolves. In one memorable practice, I thought Callahan was putting his players through an interception drill. Turns out, it just seemed that way because Dailey was throwing interceptions in rapid-fire succession.

You know the rest. Nebraska finished 5-6. It was a disaster.

This year, it's hard to envision the Huskers skidding to only five wins. Once again, a nine-win season seems a safe bet. Doesn't it always? But it's too early for predictions. After all, Nebraska has only one spring practice in the books.

A few minutes after Jones, the senior cornerback, finished his prayer and pointed to the heavens, new cornerbacks coach Donté Williams trotted onto the field wearing cleats and knee sleeves. He looked like a player. He's only 34.

I don't recall George Darlington wearing cleats and knee sleeves.

At precisely 10:57, practice onlookers — mostly media, ex-Huskers and current players' family members — got their first on-field glimpse at Diaco. He was walking briskly. Get used to that. He always seems in a hurry. He spits words quickly, and chases down players quickly after they make an error.

Diaco, who recently turned 44, favors what I like to call immediate-impact instruction, a la Keith Williams. At any rate, Diaco was a hit with media and fans. Folks kept coming up to me to relay what the new guy was saying to players.

This isn't show-pony stuff. This is sled work!

Remember, this is the greatest game in the world!

At one point, during seven-on-seven work, Diaco appeared to strip the ball from a player. Whatever happened, Diaco had the ball in his hands and sprinted into an end zone.

"Why does it look like Diaco is training for a prize fight?" asked one media member, referring to Diaco's black hoodie, which was tucked into gray sweat pants.

Meanwhile, third-year Nebraska head coach Mike Riley was his usual relaxed self. He emerged for practice alongside new safeties coach Bob Elliott, 63, who was wearing a white bucket cap to shield the sun on a gorgeous 67-degree day.

This was what Day One looked like, sounded like, felt like.

Make no mistake, Diaco was in charge of the defense. He also coached the outside linebackers, with Trent Bray handling the inside guys.

Riley says the new Husker assistant "has an enthusiasm in his teaching that is contagious." And let's face it, Diaco's enthusiasm is critical, for the transition will have many challenges. Can the defense be ready to play at a high level come fall?

"Absolutely," Riley said. "I think the thing we all see is a big picture of what the 3-4 looks like. But what a player sees is (only) his initial job within that picture."

Riley's sense of calm could help matters this spring in part because he reduces tension. Heaven knows Nebraska football carries enough inherent tension without the head coach gripping hard all the time.

As for the top two quarterbacks, they had a promising day. They went through at least one drill with athletic director Shawn Eichorst watching, arms folded. He had to like what he saw.

Riley uttered the line of the day when he said, "Without a running quarterback, we need to be a high-percentage passing team."

Earlier, as practice was about to begin, Riley stopped to chat with a couple of veteran columnists, recalling his time with the San Antonio Riders of the WLAF (1991-92). He talked about his adult son, who's living in Austin, Texas. He talked about music. His eyes always light up when you bring up Texas country.

But the conversation ended suddenly.

"I had better go now," he said, trotting off toward the first practice in a spring of change.

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

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