Months before he began tutoring the Cornhuskers in the West Coast offense, new offensive coordinator Jay Norvell watched tapes of Nebraska so he could size up his students. The player who immediately put Norvell‚Äôs mind at ease was a rangy tight end who exploded down the field whenever he got the chance. ‚ÄúPeople kept telling me I had a good tight end waiting for me in Lincoln,‚Äù says Norvell, who coached Oakland Raiders tight ends the last two seasons under Bill Callahan, now the Huskers‚Äô head man. ‚ÄúWhat I didn‚Äôt expect was a 6'5" guy who could move so fast.‚Äù
In the West Coast attack, which replaces Nebraska‚Äôs long-standing option, a playmaking tight end like Matt Herian is essential. ‚ÄúIt takes pressure off the quarterback to have a big, mobile target for a short, quick pass or a throw over the middle,‚Äù says Norvell. ‚ÄúMatt must be a mainstay for us.‚Äù
For Herian, a quiet junior from tiny Pierce, Neb., such expectations are a pleasant surprise. After totaling 2,386 receiving yards and 24 TDs in four years at Pierce High, Herian was tempted by Joe Tiller‚Äôs dynamic spread offense at Purdue. But the tug of playing in-state was stronger than the desire to catch passes, so Herian signed on with a Huskers offense that offered scant opportunity to show off his sure hands and breakaway speed. Still, he delivered when asked, scoring on four of his seven catches as a freshman and averaging 22 yards on 22 catches last year. Now, with sophomore quarterback Joe Dailey taking the snaps, Herian will have many more chances. Dailey, who completed 64% of his passes in backup duty last year, displayed a good grasp of the new offense in the spring game, connecting on 29 of 49 passes, four of them for touchdowns.
Norvell made Herian a tape of standout tight ends such as Shannon Sharpe and Jeremy Shockey, and in the spring he introduced plays in which the tight end was the focus. ‚ÄúMatt‚Äôs the strong, silent type,‚Äù says Norvell, ‚Äúbut when I‚Äôd announce there was something in the playbook for him--a corner route or a pressure route or whatever--you could see his eyes light up.‚Äù That should also be the reaction of Nebraska fans when Herian and the Huskers unveil their much-anticipated aerial show. --K.K.
2003 RECORD 10‚Äì3 (5‚Äì3, 2nd in Big 12 North)
FINAL AP RANK 19
RETURNING STARTERS 14
KEY RETURNEES (2003 stats)
LB Barrett Ruud (Sr.)
Set Cornhuskers standard with 149 tackles
S Josh Bullocks (Jr.)
His 10 INTs were team and Big 12 records
C Richie Incognito (Jr.)
All‚ÄìBig 12 tackle moves to center
RB Cory Ross (Jr.)
Averaged 109 rushing yards in last four games
TE Matt Herian (Jr.)
27.1 yards per catch over two seasons
Difference between takeaways (47) and turnovers (24) for the 2003 Cornhuskers, whose +1.77 per-game margin led the nation.
Few Huskers outworked defensive lineman Adam Carriker in the off-season. The 6'6", 270-pound sophomore, who had three tackles in nine games in ‚Äô03, made a second home of the weight room, and the results were 10 pounds of added muscle, a quicker step off the line and a near-certain starting job at right end.
Sept.4 WESTERN ILLINOIS
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†11 SOUTHERN MISS
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†18 at Pittsburgh
Oct. 2 KANSAS
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†9 at Texas Tech
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†23 at Kansas State
Nov. 6 at Iowa State
¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†13 at Oklahoma
LARRY W. SMITH/ICON SMI
The shift in offensive strategy allows tight end Herian to put his receiving skills and speed to better use.