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. 4A 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.

* * *

>> Phenomenal story on the Oklahoma Drill from ESPN’s David Fleming.

It's one part time-honored tradition, one part skill-building exercise, one part utterly insane, head-on car crash. And there's nothing like it anywhere else in sports, which might be a good thing. In the post-concussion era, the Oklahoma encapsulates the psychological push and pull of the game — a secretly thrilling and at times sickening three-second snapshot of everything we love and now fear about football.

>> Remember one of Monday’s Mad Chatter topics — quarterback transfers? Well, Scott Frost chimed in.

“Kids are expecting too much too soon a lot of times.” Frost said.

“I think, with all the media that’s around recruiting, kids think that they have to play their first year or they’re a failure. A lot of kids, when it doesn’t happen for them immediately, they want to find another place to play.”

“You can name hundreds of thousands of great players who didn’t play until their third or fourth year and still had the type of career that they wanted to have. I think the process of how things happen there just makes people more anxious to look for a different route, but most of the time, if you’re patient and you stick it out, if you’re a good player, good things are going to happen.”

>> Smart take from Mitch Sherman on the similarities between 1995 Nebraska and 2015 Ohio State. From the quarterback battle to the off-the-field issues, it won't be a cakewalk. But like Tom Osborne, Urban Meyer is as good as it gets. 

>> Tim Beck spoke to Brian Bennett about the Buckeye QB battle. It’s a blessing and a curse, he says.

>> A long read (with good background) on Kain Colter and what he lost in the fight to unionize college athletes.

“I lost my alma mater,” Colter said. “I feel like I’m in exile. I still have my teammates and friends, but the coaches, administrators, none of them. That’s the hardest part, because I sacrificed so much. I loved my four years there.”

>> What’s next for the union movement? More court battles, potentially a class-action anti-trust claim

>> Cowboys officials are raving about Randy Gregory, who might end up being strong enough to play a 4-3 defensive end. 

>> Eli Saslow on Adrian Peterson, camels, pythons, belly dancers and -- oh yeah -- coming back to football. Don't miss this

>> Robert Griffin III has made his share of mistakes the past two years. But this column by Will Leitch illustrates why RG3 is a victim, too. And why the national sports media is frequently absurd.

>> You’ve heard James Harrison’s side to participation trophies. Now read two columns that challenge him.

The first, from Behind the Steel Curtain, focuses on the Charlie Batch trophies that Harrison was protesting.

The second, from Deadspin, says the most worthless trophies are the ones adults give to the winners.

>> Charlie Pierce on swimming phenom Katie Ledecky (who will compete in Omaha next summer) and the no-win situation facing our most successful teenage athletes

>> Baseball's greatest mismatch: Yankees vs. Twins. I love stories like this

>> Finally, the biggest news of the day. Creighton is bringing back football! At least according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Oops.

Reporter - Sports

Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.