A new direction for D-line

Because of injuries, inexperience and mediocre depth, Nebraska's defensive line under Hank Hughes struggled to rush the passer. Hughes is the first assistant dismissed by coach Mike Riley.

LINCOLN — Nebraska coach Mike Riley on Friday let go of his first Husker assistant — defensive line coach Hank Hughes. Riley announced the decision in a late afternoon press release.

"I want to thank Hank for his hard work and contributions to our football program over the past year," Riley said.

"We continue to build our program with the pursuit of championships always at the forefront of everything we do, and we will look for a great coach, teacher and recruiter to enhance our defense."

Hughes did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

On the advice of NU defensive coordinator Mark Banker — who played football with Hughes at Springfield (Massachusetts) College — Riley last January had hired Hughes away from Cincinnati to coach the Huskers' defensive line. Hughes signed a two-year, $300,000-per-year contract at that time. Since the contract expires in January 2017, Hughes would be owed the final year of his contract — minus whatever salary he might make at some other job — if he were fired without cause.

Previous to his short stint at Nebraska, Hughes had been defensive coordinator at Cincinnati for one season. Prior to that, he was a longtime position coach at Connecticut.

Because of injuries, inexperience and mediocre depth. Nebraska's defensive line struggled to rush the passer in 2015. The Huskers lost two juniors, Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine, to the NFL draft. Some player, such as defensive ends Ross Dzuris and Freedom Akinmoladun, did show improvement.

But despite needing high school and junior college pass rushers in the 2016 recruiting class, Hughes failed to close on any junior college pass rushers and landed only one true high school defensive end — Collin Miller — weeks before signing day. Nebraska otherwise missed on several talented pass rushers in the 500-mile radius, including Xavier Kelly (signed with Clemson) and Carlo Kemp (signed with Michigan).

Hughes also was an initial point of contact on the recruitment of Omaha South's Noah Fant. Nebraska originally sought Fant as a defensive end. He signed with Iowa to play tight end.

Riley personally took over Fant's recruitment at some point in the process.

"He's really trying to salvage that relationship," Fant said of Riley a week before signing day. "He's doing his best to see if he can make anything happen, and I respect him a lot for that. I respect him as a head coach, and I like him a lot."

NU would presumably want a line coach hired before March 5, when it opens spring camp.

Contact the writer: 402-219-3790, sam.mckewon@owh.com twitter.com/swmckewonOWH

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