Solid is the word for Nebraska. Solid God-fearing farmers. Solid Republican politics. Solid spine-jarring football. Solid red is the color scheme of the University's Memorial Stadium on Model T Street in Lincoln and solid sellout is what its 64,000 seats are this fall. That's Nebraska, and, of course, blocky, amiable Bob Devaney, his consistent coaching record and his no-nonsense approach to football are as solidly appropriate there as putting the silo next to the barn.
With a 51-9-0 record, five bowl games and four Big Eight championships in his six years at Nebraska, Devaney has achieved just what his neighbors like most—sound, down-to-earth success that can be measured without a lot of fancy rationalizations. As a coach, Devaney is dependable and responsible and not given to flighty ups and downs: he has never won fewer than six games at Nebraska and he has never lost an assistant coach. As a tactician, he honors the writ of conservatism that has served so long as both the muse and the muscle of Cornhusker teams.
Devaney still operates the kind of team that puts all of its backs through blocking drills first, and only after stressing those skills turns to the more exciting matters of running and passing. When Bob Devaney talks about offense, one could not for a moment mistake him for a student of the flea-flicker school.
"We haven't had a lot of speed in our backfield, but our backs have been sound football players," he says. 'They block well and run tough. We tend not to have star backs. All of our All-Americas, except one second-string choice, have been linemen. That's because our offense is such that no one back carries the ball much." So the emphasis at Nebraska is on the usually joyless jobs in the line. As Assistant Coach Carl Selmer says, "It's hard to encourage a kid to play in the offensive line sometimes. It takes a certain thick-skinned, determined, unselfish kind. But here we try to give linemen a bigger share of the glory."
This plowman's philosophy of football does not unfailingly deliver championships. Last season's so-so 6-4 record and second division Big Eight finish added up to the worst season Devaney has ever had. One reason was that Nebraska's towering young quarterback, Frank Patrick, who stretches a relatively meager 210 pounds over 6'7", developed a tendency to throw the ball to the other team. This happened no less than 13 times. Another source of woe was a back-field that was fumble prone. Nebraska played drop-the-pigskin 46 times in 1967. Nevertheless, the Cornhuskers were a typically strong Devaney team and their defense was No. 1 in the nation, allowing only 158 yards a game.
This year Nebraska has 27 lettermen returning, nine of them defensive starters and another nine first-stringers from the offense. Last year Devaney tinkered a bit with an I formation, which he plans to use again this season, along with a sampling of pro sets.
The development of Patrick will be the major factor in determining the success of the offense this fall, and the issue is still in doubt. A predental student from Derry, Pa. and a young man of much charm and poise, Patrick is delighted with the ways of Nebraska. "People here are so different from the East," he says. "They're always happy to talk to you. Back home you can't even ask directions without buying gas."
Friendly though they may be to him, Nebraskans will be even kinder if Patrick cures his interception habit and learns some duck-and-dodge tactics to elude onrushing linemen instead of trying to stoically survive like a tall statue besieged by pigeons. He has never been effective on run-option plays and still is not a threat in that situation. But he is a fine passer when not lobbing the ball off-balance. Last season he completed 116 of 233 for an impressive 1,449-yard total, much of it despite the fact he was throwing in what Devaney calls "desperation situations," meaning third down with more than four yards to go.
The rest of the backfield should be good. Halfback Joe Orduna, who was renowned as Omaha Central High School's best back since Gale Sayers, gained 457 yards rushing last year, and his long kicking strides when he hits an open field are a replica of Sayers' style. But Orduna led the Cornhuskers in fumbles last season, and even though he usually lost the ball only because he struggled so fiercely to break tackles, it is a flaw that must be corrected. At fullback is Dick Davis, a senior who is a strong punter, an able blocker and a punishing runner. He does the 100 in 10 flat and was All-Big Eight last year, but he unfortunately seemed overweight and somewhat listless in spring practice. If Davis does not revive this fall, Devaney will have to go with either of two sophomores, Phil Vassar or Dan Schneiss. Neither seems quite ready yet, but Schneiss has been tagged as having good potential. At flanker is Larry Frost, a junior, and at split end is either Tom Penney, a '67 starter, or Guy Ingles, a midget by Nebraska standards. Ingles is listed on the program at 5'10" and 160 pounds, but he makes it a habit never to weigh himself before strangers, and knowing Nebraskans recall that he scarcely scaled 145 in high school. Although he is neither particularly fast nor rugged, he manages to sneak into the open frequently and he can catch anything that gets down to his level. The rest of the offensive linemen are thoroughly experienced and their blocking during spring practice was unusually impressive.
What about that No. 1 defense of 1967? Well, it is not without some holes in 1968, most notably the enormous gap left in the middle by two-time All-America Wayne Meylan. Devaney is convinced that he has at least an adequate replacement in either Tom Linstroth, 227 pounds, or Bill Hornbacher, 203, but neither is a Meylan. The tackles, too, will leave something to be desired, at least in the early games. At the ends will be Mike Wynn, 6'5" and 223, and Mike Avolio, 6'2" and 216, both of whom were starters most of last season. Nebraska's linebacking should be strong. Ken Geddes, a graduate of Boys Town, starred as a sophomore when he seemed to cover the whole field and got in on 69 tackles. And both Adrian Fiala and Dan Kobza are better than average.
The Cornhuskers' 1967 secondary gave up a scant 901 yards passing, and three of those four starters are back, namely, Cornerbacks Jim Hawkins and Al Larson and Safety Dana Stephenson. The newcomer is Randy Reeves, a junior who played some last season, too.
One final addition to the Nebraska squad could be especially important to a team that will depend a lot on defense and sweat to get through many low-scoring games. This is a placekicker, sophomore Paul Rogers, who booted two in the spring game from 37 and 49 yards out.
The Cornhuskers of 1968 are going to be strong but rather colorless, rugged but rather predictable, effective but conservative. All of which is just the kind of football that brings Nebraskans roaring to their feet.