The following references interviews done for a piece in the latest edition of Hail Varsity. Make sure you’re not missing any issues by subscribing to the magazine.
One of my least favorite parts of the offseason is the phrase that perks up around the midway point, “They’re talking too much, let actions do the talking.” Partially, it just bugs me because they literally can’t play football games in the offseason so all they have is talk. But there’s another part to it — you can learn a lot from talk.
Maybe not so much in coach speak or generalizations, but sometimes either by the way an athlete says something or just simply the words they choose to use, it can tell you a ton.
Saturday’s on-field performance from Nebraska was great, but I learned everything I need to know about the trajectory of this football team by what was said after a 53-28 win had been wrapped up and celebrated.
“Everybody kind of knew with the practices that we’ve had,” senior running back Devine Ozigbo said. “Everybody is getting better and you can just see that. The game we played last Saturday, the practices on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and how locked in everybody was on Thursday and Friday. Everybody had a pretty good feeling. We knew, ‘Alright this is a team right here that is willing to fight, willing to work and if we do what we need to do, we can go out there and change this whole situation’.
“I definitely think it started earlier in the week in practice.”
Stanley Morgan Jr., a senior wideout, talked about the same thing. He was asked if they’ve turned a corner as a team and he brought up practice.
“I saw it all week. [Our] Monday practice was amazing,” he said. “Coming off a heartbreaking loss … these guys came to work Monday ready to go, and I felt it.”
Seems pretty insignificant, if you don’t know the backstory at least.
So let’s backtrack.
When Nebraska was 0-4 and UCLA was 0-5, I talked to an offensive analyst on Chip Kelly’s Bruins staff. He played quarterback for Kelly at Oregon and he coached under Kelly after his playing days were done. He coached with Scott Frost too. Nate Costa saw Kelly turn around a program’s fortunes firsthand, he saw what it took.
“Based on what program you're in previously, you’re probably going to practice harder than you've ever practiced before because people from this school of thought believe that practice should be harder than the games and if it's done right, it will be that way,” Costa told me. “So, when you actually get into the game, it'll actually seem kind of slow and you'll be more successful in the game than you were in practice.
“Obviously, there's a lot of other things that go into that, it doesn't just happen, but that's the goal. The intensity of practice, the demands of practice are definitely one of the things that scares people away.”
So the attrition Nebraska has faced since December, that was to be expected. UCLA experienced the same when Kelly took the reins this past offseason. Oregon experienced the same when he did so in 2009. It’s the nature of the beast. Coaches squabbled that first season under Kelly. Defensive coordinator Erik Chinander told me “the first year usually doesn't look the way you want it to.”
There is certainly a physical adjustment to going from a huddle system to a no-huddle one, but a lot of it is mental. Unwavering focus is required of players for two hours. Mistakes are fine (even encouraged early in the week) if it means you’re going at 110 percent. That takes a bit to change that mindset if your team doesn’t already have it.
Kelly had a mantra: “Faceless Opponent.” You don’t enter a game saying you’re going to beat Opponent X. You enter a week of practice saying you’re going to be better than you were the week before, you’re going to be better than you were the day before, you’re going to build day-by-day, and if you do that, Saturday takes care of itself.
“It's more about a personal challenge for yourself to have the best week of practice regardless of if you're playing Sisters of the Poor or you're playing Wisconsin,” Costa said.
Offensive line coach Greg Austin remembers a call for the Ducks to be the greatest practice team in the country. Mike Bellotti, the coach who hired Kelly and the AD who oversaw his first year, just asked for the most efficient. Like a sponge, Frost soaked up all of that. The organization of practice, the way to run tempo, the emphasis you put into things, he took all of it and used it at Central Florida when he got his first shot as a head coach.
“The guys at UCF didn’t know how to practice at first,” Austin said. They were a huddle operation, same as Nebraska was, so that was the first adjustment, but “once they got accustomed to the way we practiced, then they needed to get accustomed to how hard we practiced and the fact that you don’t win the game on Saturdays, the game is won on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.”
When it clicked for the Knights, it clicked. Austin said it wasn’t until the East Carolina game — Game No. 5 — that first season when things started looking the way they should. UCF beat the Pirates 47-29 thanks to a dominant rushing performance. They had to reach a point of not only being fed up with their previous situation but also willing to embrace change.
It seems like the Purdue game was that point where Nebraska reached the same mindset. Saturday represented the breakthrough; it was the first time all season I heard players talk about practice that way. Maybe it’s because they saw the result finally, that first one broke their way and now everything makes sense.
Regardless of why, that we’re here leads me to believe the clock has started. The countdown from “get us now” to “you’re not getting us later” has begun.
The Ducks were an already stacked team for Kelly when he took over but they lost their bowl game. A season later they played for a national title. When it clicked for the Knights, a season later they went undefeated. No one knows what will happen with Nebraska football over the next year, but it feels like the rebirth can now begin on the field for all to see instead of just behind closed doors.
When Costa and I finished our conversation on a Friday afternoon, he said to just tell everyone to be patient. “If people keep the faith,” he said, “and they get the right people in there, which I think they will, the whole place will be rocking.” Frost said something to that same effect Monday morning.
“I can’t wait to see once we get this thing rolling,” he said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun around here.”
They're nothing but words right now, sure, but I think the ball just started moving.