Nebraska Rebuilding Period Over

Wednesday, August 16th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) -- Nebraska is once again aiming for the top -- and starting out there as well.

The rebuilding from a disappointing 1998 season was completed last fall with a 12-1 record, leaving the Cornhuskers with little room for improvement.

"Going 12-1 was a great season, but we didn't finish it off the way we'd like to finish it off," senior linebacker Carlos Polk said.

The Huskers feel they have the chance to do it this season, which they open as No. 1 in the AP Top 25.

Nebraska hasn't won a national title since sharing the unofficial honor with Michigan in 1997.

Hopes for another championship resurfaced quickly last fall when the Huskers once again dominated. A 24-20 loss at Texas in late October was the lone blemish on the season, costing Nebraska a shot at the title. The Huskers ended up finishing No. 3 in the final AP Top 25 and second in the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll.

Only last season's Florida State team started the season No. 1 and ended up in the same position. The Huskers want to be the second team to go wire-to-wire.

Coach Frank Solich, in his third season since taking over for Tom Osborne, is a little reluctant to accept the preseason No. 1 ranking. He says his vote goes to Florida State, which like Nebraska has 14 players back from last fall. Solich said the Seminoles deserved the chance at going wire-to-wire again.

"But I can understand why also people can look at Nebraska and feel like it can be and should be an outstanding football team,"

Solich said.

A big reason for Solich's optimism and that of Husker fans is the return of Eric Crouch, who says he is completely recovered from offseason surgery on his throwing shoulder.

Crouch is one of nine starters back on offense, which was already deep. Crouch lost a preseason battle with Bobby Newcombe for the starting job last August, but Newcombe moved to wingback after the offense sputtered through the first two games.

The Huskers' option offense clicked when Crouch took over and he ended up leading the team with 889 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns.

Crouch also passed for 1,269 yards and was named the co-offensive player of the year in the Big 12.

Three starters are back from last season's offensive line, which helped Nebraska lead the Big 12 and rank fourth nationally with 266 rushing yards a game. And the Husker lineman have a very deep backfield behind them.

Even though he didn't play last season, junior college transfer Thunder Collins is expected to challenge Dan Alexander, Correll Buckhalter and Dahrann Diedrick for playing time. And Solich has a stockpile of young talent behind them.

Whoever can hang on to the ball may be getting the most carries.

Nebraska fumbled a school record 49 times and gave up 25 of them, tying the school mark.

"As a former running back I think we've examined it from about all angles," said Solich, a fullback for the Huskers in the 1960s.

"Maddening might be the right word. It was about as frustrating as it could get because everybody was doing their best to take care of the ball."

Defensively, the Huskers have some rebuilding to do. Longtime defensive coordinator Charlie McBride retired after Nebraska's 31-21 win over Tennessee in the Fiesta Bowl. He was replaced linebackers coach Craig Bohl.

The Huskers will also miss Mike and Ralph Brown, the unrelated defensive backs who anchored the secondary for the past four seasons.

The secondary will shuffle safety Clint Finley or Joe Walker to replace Mike Brown, a first-team All-American, at rover. Junior Erwin Swiney, who missed last season as a medical redshirt, takes over at right cornerback for Ralph Brown, who started every game during his four years in Lincoln.

Linebacker is the biggest hole going into the season. The top four outside backers last fall are all gone and middle linebacker Polk is the only returning starter.

The defensive line is solid with starting end Kyle Vanden Bosch and tackle Loran Kaiser back for their senior season.

The Huskers are also strong on special teams. Punter Dan Hadenfeldt was granted an extra year of eligibility because he missed much of the 1996 season with a back injury. When he finally got a chance to start last fall, Hadenfeldt set a school record last fall by averaging 44.9 yards per punt.

Sophomore place kicker Josh Brown returns after hitting 14-of-20 field goals and 46-of-47 extra point attempts.