Frank Solich was irritated by my level of naivete.
Let me explain. The former Nebraska football coach early in the 2002 season decided to eschew his offensive play-calling duties and hire a coordinator for the role in 2003. After a name surfaced as a possible candidate, I called Frank to ask about that person.
"What makes you think he would be a good candidate?" Solich asked.
My answer: "Well, he's a good dude and he's been around the game for a long time."
"That's what you think makes a good coordinator? A good dude who's been around the game for a long time? Seriously?" he said.
Of course, Solich's incredulous reaction was apt. Calling plays is a huge job. A time-consuming job. As Nebraska scuffled to a 7-7 record in 2002, Solich decided to take a more global approach to his role. The Huskers went 10-3 in 2003 with Barney Cotton calling plays — and, yeah, Solich got fired.
Whether a head coach calls plays often is an interesting discussion. The legendary Tom Osborne called them throughout his 25-year tenure as Husker head coach, including national championship seasons in 1994, ’95 and ’97. But the legend he succeeded, Bob Devaney, had relinquished play-calling duties by the time he won national titles in 1970 and ’71.
Osborne called plays during those seasons, too. Yes, Tom called plays for five national title teams. Ponder that for a second.
Scott Frost, in his third year as Nebraska head coach, has never even hinted at the possibility of surrendering play-calling duties. But it's still an intriguing discussion to me, even more so now that he's altered his offensive coaching staff. The more I ponder the changes, the more I like them. Even if Frost continues his role as play-caller, I believe his staff alterations ultimately could make his day-to-day job easier, and perhaps allow him to tend more closely to finer details — for instance, issues on special teams.
Frost has significant experience working with Matt Lubick, who on Friday was named offensive coordinator and receivers coach, replacing Troy Walters. Granted, Frost also had significant experience working with Walters. But something wasn't clicking, and Lubick seems a good person to help fix the engine. Trust is critical, and Frost's trust in Lubick is such that Lubick worked as a consultant to the program this past season, watching video and sharing thoughts as he spent the year away from coaching.
When Frost took over as Nebraska's head coach, he was regarded as a dynamic play-caller with a cutting-edge offense. But he has lost some of his edge. So, give him credit for trying to get it back. He not only hired Lubick, he gave offensive line coach Greg Austin the title of run game coordinator. Sometimes such job titles are brushed off as insignificant. But be careful with that.
Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook last week hired Tyler Hildebrand as an associate head coach, in part to entice him to return to Lincoln. But it was more than that.
"There is going to be responsibility that comes with that for him, and more expectations," Cook said. "But he needs to feel that, and he needs to have that responsibility and pressure and expectation. I’m pretty fired up about it, and it makes me feel like I can really challenge him in maybe other ways.”
Bingo. Plus, I like that Austin's new title reflects the growing importance of his role. If one had to identify the foremost reasons why Nebraska could turn the tide in the next few years, recent offensive line recruiting would be a good place to start. Cam Jurgens is poised to become an anchor, and you've heard plenty about four-star 2019 signee Bryce Benhart (6-foot-9, 300 pounds), but also keep an eye on Brant Banks (6-7, 280). Plus, four-star Turner Corcoran (6-6, 280) is arguably the prize of the 2020 class.
The quarterback room is another place where Nebraska fans can look for optimism. Quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco has a detailed teaching system that is proven. Meanwhile, Frost trusts running backs coach Ryan Held enough to give him a $100,000 raise, plus the title of recruiting coordinator.
Don't forget tight ends coach Sean Beckton. He's a veteran and conducts himself as such — even-keeled and refreshingly matter-of-fact. Plus, he pulls talent from the Southeast, with an emphasis on Georgia.
Bottom line, Frost's staff was OK in 2019, but apparently needed tweaks. He did that. I like the way it looks, especially if it takes some pressure off a head coach whose emotional attachment to his job is obvious. That attachment is partly why I have confidence Frost can ultimately succeed at Nebraska. But he can't afford weak spots on his staff. The Big Ten is too hard for that. His willingness to adjust is a good sign.
Perhaps Frost now will be able to pay closer attention to special teams. Remember the Iowa game, when Nebraska inexplicably kicked the ball deep in the second quarter and Ihmir Smith-Marsette sped 95 yards for a touchdown? After the game, Frost wasn't sure why the kick went deep.
"I just got done calling the series and didn't make it over to the kickoff team," he said.
Which brings us back to an intriguing question: Might Frost someday give up play-calling and manage the team the way Devaney did back in the day, and the way P.J. Fleck does now at Minnesota?
It's a question worth pondering, especially as Frost evolves.
We know this: Play-calling is a time-consuming challenge, as Solich surely would attest.
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