Jeff Quinn’s debut as Nebraska’s starting quarterback foreshadowed the future of Tom Osborne’s offense. The junior from Ord, Nebraska, rushed for 112 yards on 19 carries in a season-opening 35-14 victory against Utah State. It was the first time a Husker quarterback had rushed for 100 yards in a game since the 1964 Orange Bowl victory against Auburn, in which Dennis Claridge rushed for 108 yards, 68 of them for a touchdown on the game’s second play from scrimmage.
Quinn had been recruited in 1976 with that kind of performance in mind. As Osborne has said, he was “the first quarterback that we had that was truly a dual threat.”
Earl Everett, a member of Osborne’s first recruiting class might have been in that category, but after two seasons at quarterback, Everett was moved to wingback.
The 6-foot-3, 206-pound Quinn had a 40-yard dash speed “probably in the 4.6 range,” said Osborne. He was a “pretty good thrower and played well for us, (a) strong guy.”
Quinn’s senior year at Ord High Osborne sent assistant Clete Fischer, who recruited Nebraska, to Ord to check Quinn’s speed – in wintery weather. Fischer wasn’t going to return to Lincoln without a 40 time for Quinn. So he improvised; Quinn would run the 40 down a hall in the high school.
With students watching from classroom doors along the way, Quinn ran 40 yards.
Osborne’s quarterbacks when Quinn was recruited were passers, Dave Humm, a returning starter in Osborne’s first season and Vince Ferragamo in 1975 and 1976, when the Huskers led the Big Eight in passing, as they had done in 1972 and 1974. With Humm under center, Nebraska had ranked eighth nationally in passing, averaging 221.0 yards per game, a school record until 2005.
The Huskers also led the Big Eight in passing in the 1971 national championship season, with Jerry Tagge at quarterback and a strong running game featuring Jeff Kinney, as well as in 1967, not long before Osborne began meeting with the quarterbacks in addition to coaching receivers.
The 1967 season had a significant influence on Osborne, who started thinking about that time that, as he has said, a rushing yard was worth more than a passing yard. The seed was planted.
Though leading the conference in passing, and having a defense that ranked No. 1 nationally in 1967, Nebraska finished 6-4 and didn’t go to a bowl game. Husker quarterbacks threw for only eight touchdowns and were intercepted 15 times, 13 of those thrown by Frank Patrick.
Passing wasn’t the only offensive problem, though. The Huskers lost 25-of-46 fumbles, to finish minus-18 in turnovers, a school record that still stands.
As has been well-documented, problems with Big Eight rival Oklahoma influenced Osborne’s decision to recruit dual-threat quarterbacks such as Quinn.
Osborne decided the way to beat the Sooners was to play as they played, with an athletic quarterback who had the ability to run options, which Quinn could. After him “we had Mark Mauer, and Turner Gill took over for Mark, and the rest is kind of history after that,” Osborne said.
Mauer was listed as a “quarterback-linebacker” when he was recruited from St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1977 class. Bobby Marks, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, was listed as a “quarterback-defensive back” in that class, which also included Steve Michaelson, a quarterback from Omaha.
There was only one quarterback in the 1978 recruiting class, Bruce Mathison from Superior, Wisconsin. Mathison, who lettered as Gill’s back-up in 1981 and 1982, would have excelled in a pro-style offense. He started nine games over five seasons in the NFL.
In any case, Quinn suffered a leg injury in the second game of the 1979 season at Iowa – Tim Hager, a walk-on from Lincoln, came off the bench to direct a fourth-quarter rally that gave the Huskers a 24-21 victory and started until late in the season when a healthy Quinn took over.
Counting the Cotton Bowl, Quinn finished with 274 yards and three touchdowns rushing, on 75 carries, and he completed 57-of-110 passes for 702 yards and five touchdowns, with five interceptions. Even though his final numbers didn’t necessarily reflect it, Osborne’s offense was changing.
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.