Tom's Time
Photo Credit: Randy Hampton

Tom’s Time: Nebraska’s Coming Attractions Go to Laramie

January 30, 2018

The game was Frank Solich’s first as an assistant on Tom Osborne’s staff, which probably explains why the Lincoln Journal and Star sent a reporter.

Solich had been the head football coach the previous 11 years at Lincoln Southeast High School, winning Class A championships in 1976 and 1977.

The Husker freshman-junior varsity team opened the 1979 season against the Wyoming jayvees at Laramie on a Monday. Had travel plans been made based solely on an entry in the football media guide, the newspaper reporter would’ve traveled to Cheyenne the previous Friday.

Sometimes mistakes aren’t caught during editing.

In any case, the Lincoln papers considered Solich’s debut worth covering. The Omaha World-Herald did not. Of greater interest for the Omaha and Lincoln papers, of course, was Nebraska’s season-opener against Utah State at Memorial Stadium five days later.

Seven starters returned on offense, six on defense, which was experienced nonetheless. The biggest concern on offense was replacing starters in the line and quarterback Tom Sorley, a two-year starter. Junior Jeff Quinn emerged from spring practice atop the depth chart there.

Quinn reflected a change in Osborne’s offensive philosophy. He was more runner than passer, as were recruits Nate Mason from Greenville, Texas, and Randee Johnson from Lincoln – Northeast High.

Johnson asked to move to defense and would suffer a career-ending vertebrae fracture in his neck during a scrimmage in 1980.

Whether intentional or not, Mason provided a preview of coming attractions at Laramie, starting at quarterback for Solich’s all-freshman team, leading it to a 26-16 victory against a Wyoming junior varsity team that included older players. Mason threw just five passes, completing one for 15 yards. But he ran 16 times for 73 yards, 55 of them for one of two touchdowns he scored. Walk-ons Russell Frazier and Dave Haase were a combined 1-for-5 passing for 3 yards.

Because of a lack of success in the first half, the Huskers “almost eliminated the passing attack from our offense in the second half,” Solich said. “But we’ll get better at it.”

Even so, a change was coming, as the freshman team showed. The pieces were in place.

The freshmen rushed 58 times for 408 yards, 7 yards per carry, led by I-back Roger Craig, who gained 196 yards on 12 carries, including 69 for a touchdown on the fourth play from scrimmage and 70 in the fourth quarter, which would’ve been 87 and a touchdown if he hadn’t lost control of the ball and fumbled out-of-bounds. Nebraska fumbled eight other times, losing two.

Fullback Craig Holman from Omaha Northwest carried 11 times for 93 yards and scored the final touchdown, set up by Craig’s fumble-ending 70-yard run.

“A lot of people have taken a big interest in this freshman team,” said Solich.

The team included 22 scholarship players, only 12 of whom would earn at least one letter.

Craig was among what Osborne said was as good of a group of running backs as Nebraska had ever recruited. Others included Jimmy Austin from Miami, Doug Wilkening from Littleton, Colorado, and Dennis Rogan from Colorado Springs – whose nickname was “Disco King,” the media guide said.

Austin and Rogan were among the 10 who didn’t letter. Wilkening moved to fullback, redshirted and lettered twice before deciding to walk away from football before his senior season.

Craig, who was upset by the out-of-bounds fumble at Wyoming, almost left, in part because he expected to play on the varsity that first year. He was going to transfer, Craig said years later. Osborne “just said I really wasn’t ready to play on varsity,” Craig said. “And I wasn’t.”

He was ready the next season, as history has shown, in an offense undergoing a transformation. He would finish at Nebraska the year before Solich became Osborne’s running backs coach.

Tom's Time is a regular feature that will take a closer look at the life of Tom Osborne. Nebraska has a storied history in football that dates back to the earliest years of the game, but the tradition to which Husker fans hold Nebraska is mostly a reference to Osborne's 25 years as head coach. And that will always be worth exploring in greater detail. Click here for all of the entries in the series.

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