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Monday, April 07, 2008

Callahan's Lasting Legacy: The Redshirt Diaries - 2004

We all read the quote and immediately started thinking of other guys who would have benefitted from a redshirt season. The quote I'm talking about? This one:
"I always tell my mom and dad, it was nice traveling and seeing the places I did, but I really should've redshirted," [now sophomore Latravis]Washington said. "I really should've."
Of all of the questionable decisions made by Bill Callahan and his coaching staff, none will have a greater impact on the future of the program than those related to the redshirting (check that - not redshirting) of incoming freshman. This series will examine those decisions.

First, for a primer on redshirting, head to SMQ, who breaks it down better than anyone else, once again.

Secondly, let's decide who is to blame for poor redshirting decisions. I always assumed that a coaching staff had the final say about which freshmen will redshirt and which will see the field. One could also make the argument, however, that players should have quite a bit of say in this, given that it's ultimately their future. But the bottom line seems to dictate that coaches DO have the final say. If you, as a coaching staff, don't want to send a guy out there, then don't. Tell him he might get a shot, but if he's not in your top group why force him into a spot on special teams?

Anyway, I tried to think of the best way to organize this series and finally decided to start by gong year-by-year of the Callahan experiment. At the conclusion I also hope to determine the worst redshirting decisions made during this time.

So without further adu, here is the 2004 recruiting class:

Santino Panico – We absolutely have to start with this guy. Panico’s redshirt was burned when Callahan discovered that despite Nebraska’s status as a major college football team, our ability to field punts looked something like this. Panico had all of the traits you want in a dangerous return man – great vision, soft hands, a quick first step, and cat-like agility. Ok, so actually he just had soft hands. Because of this, Callahan’s special teams strategy became, “catch the ball, and then you’ll fall.” Panico did just that to the tune of 22 punt returns in 2004 for 68 total yards. That’s incredible an average of 3.1 yards/return. On the strength of Panico’s efforts Nebraska finished last in the Big 12 and 107th nationally in punt returns.

There are a lot of theories out there to explain Panico’s role on the 2004 squad. Mine is as follows. As we all know, Bill Callahan’s father was a long time Chicago police officer. What you might not know is that Callahan’s father also loved the ponies. So much so, that he quickly found himself owing a lot of money to the kind of men you do not want to owe the smallest amount of money to. One of those men was famed Chicago mob boss Marcelino “Soft Hands” Panico, who as fate would have it, happens to be Santino’s grandfather. As crime bosses are wont to do, Marcelino later called upon the Callahan family to do a service for him. That favor, which served as justice for his father’s gambling debts, was Bill Callahan’s usage of Santino Panico as a true freshman punt returner catcher. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. Hey it’s better than the ending to The Sopranos.

Overall, burning Panico's redshirt had little lasting impact, but did signify Callahan's odd tendency to do this solely for special teams purposes.

Lance Brandenburgh – This one stings. Brandenburgh also seems to have played almost exclusively on special teams as a true freshman in 2004. From his bio:
“Brandenburgh played in every game except the season opener, primarily on special teams. He made three tackles, one each against Kansas State, Iowa State and Colorado. He was NU's Special Teams Player of the Week at Kansas State.”
Interestingly, a Rivals($) article from this February contrasts this stating:
“As a freshman, Brandenburgh was pulled out of his redshirt during the third game of the season and played on special teams for the final eight games of the year.”
I don’t know which is right, but it doesn’t really matter. This winter Coach Pelini worked to get Brandenburgh an extra year of eligibility based on his history of injuries, which included a stress fracture in his foot and two pulled hamstrings during his sophomore year. During his junior year, Brandenburgh broke his wrist. Finally, as a senior, he missed one game with an ankle injury and a torn pec muscle caused him to miss the final three games of the season. Unfortunately the NCAA denied this request.

The bottom line is Brandenburgh was pulled out of his redshirt year for a grand total of 3 tackles. How would you like to have his playmaking ability and senior leadership at one of the linebacker spots this season instead?

Beau Davis – This decision is strange and rather insignificant (kind of). In case you somehow managed to block this memory out, Davis was brought out of a redshirt during the fifth game of the season against Texas Tech. Davis entered the game late in the third quarter with the score 35-10. He then proceeded to complete 5/7 passes. Unfortunately, four of those receptions were by Red Raider defenders. The INTs and a fumble, also by Davis quickly turned the game into the nightmare we all remember.

Clearly, the game wasn’t going as planned when Callahan decided to bring Davis into the game and out of his redshirt season. My guess is he felt the need to do something, anything to give fans the sense that he was trying. According to post-game press reports
“Callahan said he lifted Dailey because he thought Davis might provide a spark with his ‘deeper arm’.”
Accuracy and possible color blindness be damned, I guess. Davis would eventually redshirt the 2005 season, and wouldn’t see action on the field again until mop up duty against Nicholls State and Troy in 2006. Due to his 2005 redshirt campaign Davis is still around in Lincoln. This is, I suppose, neither a positive or a negative. The plays aren't going to signal themselves in, after all.

Cortney Grixby – The decision to burn Grixby’s redshirt was immediate. By the third game against Pittsburgh, he was already starting in the place of an injured Lornell McPherson. The team had little to no depth at cornerback, meaning Callahan didn’t have the luxury of sitting Grixby as a true freshman. You can’t fault this decision and Grixby ended 2004 with some pretty solid numbers. He tallied 21 total tackles, including 14 solo stops, and added four pass breakups. Grixby made a season-high four tackles against Kansas, and had three tackles each against Southern Miss, Pittsburgh and Kansas State.

Brandon Jackson – Another decision that it’s hard to find fault with and one that had limited impact given that Jackson left after the 2006 season. In 2004, the running back spot was pretty much up for grabs with Cory Ross, David Horne, Jackson and Tierre Green sharing the bulk of the carries. Jackson burst onto the scene with 79 yards on 13 carries in the opener against Western Illinois. That total was the most by a Husker true freshman in a season opener since at least 1973. Overall, Jackson played in 10 games and finished the year with 390 yards and six touchdowns, while averaging 4.6 yards per carry. The 390 yards were the ninth-most ever by a Husker freshman.

Terrence Nunn – No freshman benefited more from the changing guard in Lincoln than Nunn. The complete lack of receivers for Callahan’s switch to the WCO meant that he had to step up in a hurry. Nunn’s redshirting chances went out the window way before opening day, and he wound up starting the first contest of the season. Nunn would go onto make five more starts as a true freshman and finished with 16 receptions for 218 yards, with a season-long 55-yard reception at Kansas State to set up a Nebraska touchdown. Nunn also started his streak of consecutive games with a catch during his true freshman campaign. That streak would extend well into the 2007 season. Nunn was a huge get for Callahan given the roster he inherited. Terrence became a consistent contributor and few would argue that another year of development would have benefited him or the team coming into 2008.

Overall, most of the decisions concerning redshirts during the 2004 season make sense on the surface. Using Beau Davis was a head-scratcher at the time, but has been meaningless since that moment. The Brandenburgh decision, on the other hand, was a monumental fuck up. The first time a linebacker blows an assignment or misses an easy tackle, I'll be sure to remember that Lance could have been out there in 2008.