Tom's Time
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Tom’s Time: To the 4-3 in the Spring of ’93

September 18, 2020

During Nebraska’s stay in Miami preparing for the 1993 Orange Bowl game against Florida State, Tom Osborne asked Derek Brown if he would return for his senior season.

Some of Brown’s teammates asked the same question.

Brown said he’d be back.

Frank Solich, assistant head coach and his position coach, had told Brown the plan for 1993 was to revise the offense to include more plays with Brown and Calvin Jones on the field at the same time. Both were I-backs who carried the nickname “We-backs.” Jones, a sophomore, rushed for 1,210 yards and 14 touchdowns, Brown 1,011 yards and four touchdowns; he had missed one game and would carry only four times in the bowl because of a shoulder separation.

The “We-backs” were Nebraska’s first 1,000-yard rushers in the same season.

So the question of whether Brown would return was significant.

As it turned out he didn’t.

After the bowl game Brown went home to La Habra, California, and decided he needed to declare for the NFL Draft, figuring he might be a second- or third-round pick.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper had estimated fifth to seventh round.

Brown split the difference; he would be drafted in the fourth round by the New Orleans Saints.

All-America offensive guard and Outland Trophy winner Will Shields, drafted in the third round, was the most prominent Husker completing his eligibility in 1992. Among the other starters lost were center Jim Scott, fullback Lance Lewis, outside linebacker Travis Hill, defensive tackle John Parrella and defensive backs Kenny Wilhite, Tyrone Byrd and Steve Carmer.

Scott, Hill, Parrella and Byrd earned first-team all-conference recognition.

The process of replacing them began in 15 days of spring practice—10 of those days in pads, the 10th the annual spring game. But the over-riding story in the spring was the change in defense, to a 4-3 base alignment to better deal with passing offenses while still being able to stop the run.

Trev Alberts, a senior-to-be and key figure in that change, would be unhappy with the performance of the defense in the spring game, which officially drew 25,011.

The Red team, which included the first-team offense and second-team defense, defeated the White team, which included Alberts and the first-team defense and second-team offense, 29-8.

Tommie Frazier started for the Red team. Brook Berringer saw action for both teams, as did I-back Damon Benning, who rushed for a combined 90 yards on 24 carries.

Tony Veland, a White team quarterback, rushed for 85 yards on 16 carries.

Tom Sieler kicked two field goals for the White team, Matt Fisher one for the Red team. Reggie Baul scored the game’s first touchdown, for the Red team, on an 86-yard kickoff return. The extra-point kick was blocked, and Troy Dumas returned it 65 yards for two points.

The other Red team touchdowns came on a 5-yard Frazier-to-Gerald-Armstrong pass, Jeff Makovicka’s 15-yard run and an 8-yard Berringer-to-Armstrong pass.

The White team’s Brett Popplewell, a sophomore wingback from Melbourne, Australia, was the game’s leading receiver, with six catches for 90 yards.

Redshirt freshmen Ben Rutz (quarterback), Marvin Sims (I-back) and Eric Stokes (cornerback) were among those missing an opportunity to play in the spring game because of injuries, as were returning starters Corey Dixon (split end) and Ed Stewart (linebacker). Though Jones had to be helped off the field 13 seconds into the second quarter, the returning “We-back” only suffered an ankle bruise.

The spring game’s most sobering moment came midway through the fourth quarter, when redshirt freshman Willis Brown suffered a fractured vertebra in his neck making a tackle on a kickoff.  Brown, a cornerback, was a scholarship recruit from Edmond, Oklahoma. He wasn’t paralyzed by the injury, but his playing career was at an end. Still, he was credited with earning a letter in 1993.

As for the spring game, defensive coordinator Charlie McBride agreed with Alberts’ assessment of the defense. The offense would need to carry the load if the defense played as it had, McBride said. Based on what he saw, he hoped fans didn’t expect the defense to be “real dominant.” In 17 years at Nebraska—his 10th as defensive coordinator—he said he had never had such doubts.

Osborne, however, expected the new defense to be “solid.”

And it would be.

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