De'Mornay Pierson-El is out six to eight weeks with a foot injury. If you’re a Husker fan reading that news, your heart probably hit your big toe.
It’s the first big event from fall camp. It’s the moment the 2015 season got real.
For all of Mike Riley’s good deeds the past nine months — and there are many — the truth was Nebraska's transition was always going to be tough.
No. 1 — Riley had to mend the fragile psyche of the roster. After the past few years under Pelini, when players were conditioned to distrust everybody outside the locker room, that wasn’t easy.
Riley had to sell the Huskers on a fresh start. Persuade them to be true to their school, not their former coach. He apparently pulled it off. Not a single projected starter transferred. And most seemingly prefer the new way of doing things.
No. 2 — Riley had to figure out what to change and what not to. This is always a challenge with a coaching change, but especially here because of Riley’s offensive scheme.
He’s a pro-style disciple, through and through. And Pelini and Beck subscribed to the theory of space and pace. Tommy Armstrong was not a quarterback that Riley would’ve recruited at Oregon State. So how do you adhere to your principles without shoving a square peg into a round hole?
No. 3 — No Ameer Abdullah. No Randy Gregory. No Kenny Bell. Sure, teams lose good players every year, but even if Bo had stayed, the talent level seemed relatively low.
There appeared to be plenty of able-bodied athletes at most positions. Decent depth. The question was top-flight talent. How many building blocks did Nebraska really have? How many potential All-Big Ten guys?
No. 4 — A front-loaded schedule. If ever there were a year when NU needed early cupcakes, this was it. Think 2014 (Florida Atlantic, McNeese State, at Fresno State, Miami). Or 2010 (Western Kentucky, Idaho, at Washington, South Dakota State).
Instead, Riley drew the Huskers’ toughest opener since 2003 (Oklahoma State). Two weeks later, Nebraska travels to Miami. And the two most important divisional games (Wisconsin and Minnesota) fall in the second and third weeks of Big Ten play.
Put it all together and there’s one thing Riley absolutely, undoubtedly, don’t-even-think-about-it, could not afford: an injury to a core piece.
Pierson-El is the most talented skill player on the roster, the one guy on offense that could keep defensive coordinators awake at night. Some games, because of his punt-return skills, he’s worth 7-14 points all by himself.
Riley almost certainly would’ve given DPE 10-20 touches a game on offense, too. Screens. Jet sweeps. Deep balls.
Riley first saw NU up close at the Holiday Bowl. The offense looked pretty darn good. Now there’s no Abdullah. No Bell. No Pierson-El. Suddenly Armstrong, who looks a little overwhelmed in practice anyway as he adapts to new terminology, footwork and expectations, is without his top playmaker.
By the time Pierson-El is 100 percent again, it might be late October. Nebraska might be 4-3 or 3-4 and eliminated from the divisional race.
Is it too early for doomsday talk? Probably. Does DPE’s injury impact Riley’s chances of a building a conference champion long-term? Probably not.
But barring an astounding coaching job, 2015 looks like an ambush, followed by a slog to the finish line. It’s not about winning a championship, it’s about competing with passion and dignity. It's about avoiding dissension and humiliation. It's about building momentum for 2016.
Hold on tight, Husker fans. The past few seasons were rough. But it's likely to get worse before it gets better.
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