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Spring Stories: Callahan Enrolls Quarterbacks in Gilbert and Sullivan Troupe

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When executed properly, the very model of a modern Bill Callahan play call sounds exactly like this:

So we probably should have seen this coming when Callahan introduced High-Resolution X-Ray Scattering: From Thin Films to Lateral Nanostructures (hardcover, natch) as his Spring playbook:

Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller sometimes doesn't realize he's going so fast.

Not sprinting out. Not scrambling for the first-down marker.

Calling plays.

"He doesn't slur his words, but they just come all together," NU receiver Maurice Purify said. "It's sometimes that he says it so fast that you don't catch all the necessary stuff. We just have to pay attention a little more when Sam's calling the plays."

That's not unusual, receiver Nate Swift said, for any new quarterback coming into a system like Bill Callahan's, what with all the verbiage necessary to get a play from head coach to huddle to players.

"We always have to tell them to slow down a little bit and pronounce every word, because sometimes they sound the same," Swift said. "You've got to tell them for a week straight before they stop doing it."

Keller also had to be trained by NU teammates to tell them the snap count before calling the play, the opposite of how he had done things before.

(Emphasis mine)

Prediction: by midseason, in order to get the call in, slow it down in the huddle, remind the quarterback to give the snap count (!), get the team to the line, shift a thousand times, signal hot reads, make dummy calls, put another man in motion, check with Callahan for an audible, call the audible, execute another dozen shifts, make more dummy calls, get the signed go-ahead from Callahan, shout the circumlocutory count, get the coach's final hand-signed okay and get off a snap, the Huskers will adjust by moving their huddle five yards back and working straight through the delay of game penalties. Unless the play clock is extended to lengths not seen since the line-of-scrimmage monologues delivered in The Program.

Seems it would be less prudent at this stage to lock in Keller as the de facto fall starter, though, when he, Joey Ganz and Beau Davis are all operating to date on the same rhythm, throw "on the same timing," and Ganz and Keller each "throw a nice ball," according to the receivers. Ganz had a strong scrimmage Saturday, leading three touchdown drives in four full possessions, when Keller did not get "in the flow" or get the offense into the end zone on a few "decent" drives. Ganz is also the returning backup with two years in the system and correspondingly a more ingrained sense of the required animatronics.

Bunko zip flugelhorn, Sammy! Flugelhorn!
- - -

This is where I wonder about the West Coast "system," which is fundamentally based on short, quick passes beholden to footwork and the aforementioned timing and rhythm. This can work just fine; football player Rich Gannon was the National Football League's football MVP of football in the 2002 football season doing this sort of thing, and once completed like 25 consecutive passes. In one article, the words "timing" and "rhythm" come up six times, as a prerequisite for the West Coast offense, and there is a lot of concern for "drop points" and the quarterbacks operating "on a clock." This is true to some extent of every system, but Callahan's West Coast especially would seem to inherently favor the strengths of a quarterback like Ganz, or like Zac Taylor (or Rich Gannon), who possesses the mechanics and timing but not the arm of a huge Pac Ten slinger like Keller (at 240, the Arizona State refugee is slightly larger than any of the Huskers' presumptive starters at linebacker, compared to the 200-pound Ganz, 190-pound Davis or 210-pound Taylor). Maurice Purify, a big play guy in the classic mold of the big, lanky downfield leaper, told Omaha World Herald reporter Rich Kaipust "he can tell" Keller likes to throw deep on vertical and post routes, but adds quickly Keller can make the short throws, too. He will have to, of course.

Mostly, the quick-throwing route has been a successful one in the transition to a more balanced scheme under Callahan - it is not pass-first, even on occasions, like the 36-carry, 68-yard effort at USC last year, it perhaps should be - but to date it's served mainly to regain the jump on the rest of the temporarily insubordinate North division, only one other member of which (No. 39 Missouri) fielded a defense in the nation's top 65 last season. For instance:

Nebraska Pass Offense Per Game, 2006
W - L Comp. % Per Pass TD INT Pass Yds. Rush Yds. Points
vs. Top 25 Defenses 0-4 50.4 6.9 1.25 1.25 213.3 73.5 12.8
vs. Rest of Nation 9-1 63.2 8.9 3.0 0.3 256.4 209.3 37.7

It can be said that when Nebraska doesn't run well, it doesn't throw very well, either - even in its 302-yard passing game in the near-upset of Texas, big chunks of yards came via a halfback pass and a Herculean effort by Bernard Jackson on a screen pass that should have resulted in a loss. Remember Callahan's Raiders against a hellacious Bucs' D in Super Bowl XXXVII? This is a theme against outstanding defenses.

In his half-season as starter at ASU, Keller threw for 461 yards against LSU, 380 at Oregon State, 347 against USC and 277 against Oregon, games in which he threw for 12 touchdowns and his team scored 31, 42, 28 and 17 points. Three of those games, for reasons more related to defense (or special teams, in the case of LSU), his team also lost. He threw zero interceptions against LSU, but five against USC. So trend is not one his more aggressive attitude will not necessarily reverse. But Taylor was always just a guy in this scheme, generally a very competent guy but nothing special, and it obviously is going to take more just a guy to continue the upward trajectory on to a Big XII title. Keller has a shot at being that, if he's allowed to take it.