Once upon a time, Mike Riley thought he was going to get fired.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers, defending Grey Cup champions of the CFL, lost the final seven games of the 1989 season. They finished 7-11.
“I thought that was it,” Riley said.
Then Tom Burgess fell out of the sky.
Burgess was a 6-foot, 200-pound quarterback who played college ball at Colgate. He was described by his teammates as a “firecracker,” a quarterback with an offensive lineman’s mentality. Tough guy. Good teammate.
He was the backup on Saskatchewan’s Grey Cup title team in 1989 and was traded to Winnipeg to save Riley.
The Bombers clicked. The Bombers won the Grey Cup. Burgess was the MVP. Riley was saved.
“He changed the whole dynamic,” Riley said earlier this week. “He was a guy who was loved by the team. Fought like crazy. Tough as nails. He changed our team.”
As the 2017 Nebraska football season begins, Riley again finds himself looking skyward.
As he enters his third season, Riley’s Nebraska has looked good off the field. On the field, it’s just there.
At last week’s Big Ten media days, the Husker program blended into the convention center wallpaper. The only buzz was the story about the once-proud program having to play Friday night this season.
That’s old news. What Riley needs is something new and fresh.
Here come the parachutes now.
One is Tanner Lee, the transfer quarterback from Tulane, with the exciting promise of a big-time arm.
Another is Bob Diaco, the hired gun defensive coordinator, with a personality and résumé that screams success.
Can these two flip that switch and jumpstart the Huskers? Can one of them do it this season?
The 2016 season ended in a train wreck and prompted change by Riley. But 9-4 wasn’t that far from 10 or 11 wins (and certainly a few wins could have gone the other way, too).
Take the Wisconsin game. Could more efficient offense have made the difference late in that overtime loss? Yes.
And Iowa. It was a blowout. But wouldn’t a physical defense that showed up with passion have made a difference? You bet.
Do lightning bolts happen? Do heroes fall out of the sky? Do seasons take unexpected turns for the better? We’ve seen it here at Nebraska.
In 2003, we saw Bo Pelini almost single-handedly energize a program coming off 6-6 with a hair-on-fire defense whose playmaking became contagious. No, it wasn’t perfect (losses to Texas and Kansas State). But Pelini did raise the bar that year.
In 2009, Ndamukong Suh emerged on a rainy night at Missouri and put Pelini’s offensive-challenged team on his back the entire season. That team came one second from winning the Big 12.
A year later, Pelini’s decision to start freshman Taylor Martinez at quarterback transformed NU into a national contender.
One player. One coach. It happens all the time.
Riley’s job isn’t in danger. In some ways, it feels like a beginning with “his kind” of quarterback and the defensive guru he hired.
But in other ways, this is a program that feels like it’s waiting for somebody to step up, somebody to play difference-maker and lead the way.
“As much as a spark, we might need confirmation that this quarterback … whoa, this guy is going to be good,” Riley said. “Whoa, look at that defense.
“At this point, it’s all about building confidence. And those two things, those are the narratives of the team.”
A spark, yes. And who knows where it might come from?
Maybe Mike Cavanaugh’s offensive line, with some experience and depth, becomes a difference-maker. Maybe one of the running backs becomes someone we didn’t know was there.
Maybe one of the defensive linemen or linebackers blossoms under Diaco’s mentorship and 3-4 scheme.
Maybe the screen pass is the MVP of 2017.
Could happen. But the two most likely sources of electricity are Lee and Diaco.
Lee doesn’t have to be perfect. Far from it. Highlight throws boost energy. But Lee’s tale will be told in efficiency and reliability.
Where Lee can make the spark is in leading the team, particularly moving the chains. Converting third downs. His vibe in the huddle and sideline and locker room. If he’s that guy, and he backs it up, a lot of uncertain parts on offense could come together quickly.
It’s hard to know the timetable on the transition to a new defense. But 2017 has to be about finding the right personnel for the field — then getting that personnel to play fast, hard and confident.
There will be some instinct and luck involved — finding the right linebackers in a program that wasn’t set up for the 3-4 — and where to play Joshua Kalu is an important domino. These things may take a season to sort out.
The hair-on-fire Blackshirts, to me, is the priority. Confidence comes from comfort. This is a thing that might need to grow as the season goes. But if it can happen early, forcing turnovers, stuffing Oregon in Eugene, who knows?
“We have a chance for either one,” Riley said.
Then the coach winked, perhaps from experience.
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Antonio Reed, left, Aaron Williams, back right, and Joshua Kalu take a selfie with Carter Blackstock.
Fans attend Nebraska football fan day at Memorial Stadium.
Triniti Rowe, 10, waits for fan day to start.
JD Spielman signs autographs during fan day.
Assistant coach Scott Booker autographs a football for a fan.
Assistant coach Scott Booker talks to a fan.
Joshua Kalu, left, greets Landry Hiebner, 3 months, with Antonio Reed, center, and Aaron Williams.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco signs autographs during fan day.
Coach Mike Riley signs an autograph for Jayden Hartz.
Quarterback Tanner Lee signs autographs.
Corley Hoffman, 10, left, and Braelynn Furman, 5, center, lay on Troy Hoffman right, while waiting for fan day.
Kash Boggs, 2, plays in the grass during fan day.
Assistant coach Scott Booker signs autographs.
Joshua Kalu entertains a young fan.
Fans attend Nebraska football fan day at Memorial Stadium.
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco shakes hands with Ray Keller, right, during fan day.
Quarterback Tanner Lee signs autographs during fan day.
Brynley Hertzel, 5, left, and William Brown, 5 right, wait in line.
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No. 1 Tanner Lee: The Tulane transfer has been given the keys to Nebraska’s offense, and much is expected as a result. His ability to make the one or two passes that most quarterbacks can’t should come in handy. You can read more here.
No. 2 Chris Jones: Jones tore the meniscus in his left knee over the summer and will likely miss at least half the season. Could he miss all of it? Possibly — he has a redshirt season left. You can read more here.
No. 3 Nick Gates: He started every game in 2016, but Gates was much more effective before an ankle injury at Indiana. You can read more here.
No. 4 Joshua Kalu: A competent corner for most of his career, Kalu’s smarts and tackling talents should serve him well at safety, where coaches plan to keep him despite the injury to Chris Jones. You can read more here.
No. 5 Stanley Morgan: It’s Morgan’s turn and his time to be NU’s No. 1 receiver. The stats from first two seasons combined — 58 catches, 757 yards, five touchdowns — would be a good year in 2017. You can read more here.
No. 6 Aaron Williams: He has been a jack of all trades the last two seasons, finding the field in nickel and dime packages as well as on special teams. Now the Atlanta native appears to have parlayed that work and experience into a starting spot at safety. You can read more here.
No. 7 De'Mornay Pierson-El: Coach Mike Riley was openly excited about Pierson-El when he took over after the 2014 season, but injuries before and during the 2015 campaign have kept Riley from getting the best of what he envisioned. You can read more here.
No. 8 Carlos Davis: Voted the Huskers’ most improved player after the 2016 season, Davis gets the chance to take a bigger — and more important — step with a starting job at defensive end in the new three-man front. You can read more here.
No. 9 Jerald Foster: It’s not a reach to trace some of last season’s offensive line issues back to last August, when Foster injured a knee midway through fall camp and Nebraska had to scramble. Foster recovered in time to start the last four games, and that experience will be big heading into his junior season. You can read more here.
No. 10 Chris Weber: It’s an important season for Weber. It’s his first stint as a full-time starter and the defense wants a smooth transition for Bob Diaco. You can read more here.
No. 11 Tanner Farmer: The former state champion wrestler from Highland, Illinois, offers a strong and agile blocking presence, and that versatility will be tested along with that of his line mates this fall while protecting a pro-style quarterback for the first time. You can read more here.
No. 12 Tre Bryant: Nebraska still hasn’t settled on a starting running back, but Bryant might be the closest to the do-everything feature back coaches are looking for. He ran for 172 yards and one touchdown on 43 attempts last year and showed his ability to catch passes out of the backfield. You can read more here.
No. 13 Dedrick Young: Young already proved himself to be one of Nebraska’s best tacklers at outside linebacker the past two seasons, when he started 20 games and made 121 stops along with four quarterback hurries. You can read more here.
No. 14 Lamar Jackson: How confident is Nebraska that the sophomore from California can be a standout cornerback? Enough so that coaches tried accomplished senior Joshua Kalu at safety this spring in an effort to get Jackson on the field. You can read more here.
No. 15 Mick Stoltenberg: He showed up for spring practice with nearly 20 additional pounds of muscle in preparation for his new role as the starting nose tackle on Nebraska’s three-man front. And his positive impressions that first day were just the beginning as he settled in and stood out at his new position. You can read more here.
16. Freedom Akinmoladun: Few players expressed more excitement about their potential in the new 3-4 defense than Akinmoladun, whose four sacks were second on the team last year. You can read more here.
No. 17 Drew Brown: Brown connected from 35 and 33 yards in the spring game and was 12 of 14 last fall while hitting all 38 of his PATs. His consistency should give the Huskers a little more flexibility and margin for error as their schedule toughens and tight games abound. You can read more here.
No. 18 Cole Conrad: Nebraska felt strongly enough about Conrad to award the former walk-on from Fremont Bergan a scholarship in January and — in a surprise development — move him into the mix at center this spring to get him on the field. You can read more here.
No. 19 David Knevel: Knevel and Husker coaches were ready to see what he could do over the course of a full slate of games at right tackle last season before an ankle injury against Oregon hampered his play in multiple contests, forcing him to miss three games late in the year. You can read more here.
20. Khalil Davis: The redshirt sophomore might not be a starter as he learns a new position at nose tackle, but he’ll provide valuable depth behind Mick Stoltenberg and be a big body who can clog running lanes and get after the quarterback when necessary. You can read more here.
No. 21 Mikale Wilbon: This spring — kind of a put-up-or-shut-up period for Wilbon — he made strides as a pass blocker and in learning Nebraska’s pro-style playbook. You can read more here.
No. 22 Tyler Hoppes: Lincoln Southwest graduate, Wayne State transfer and Husker walk-on Hoppes picked the perfect time to be a senior tight end at Nebraska: He’s No. 1. You can read more here.
Husker Camp Countdown: No. 20 Khalil Davis
23. Luke Gifford: He has gone from safety in high school to playing close to the line of scrimmage. Between defense and special teams, Gifford is in line for a breakthrough season. You can read more here.
24. Marcus Newby: The fifth-year senior from Maryland has done a little bit of everything in his NU career, and this season he’ll be in a natural outside linebacker role that will generally suit him. You can read more here.
No. 25 Eric Lee: The top-rated prospect from Nebraska’s 2015 recruiting class, found his footing — in a big way — this spring under new cornerbacks coach Donte Williams. You can read more here.
No. 26 JD Spielman: He ostensibly will be a slot receiver for the Huskers, but he’s capable of many things. He can be a jet sweep guy. He could even run the ball out of the backfield. You can read more here.
27. Keyan Williams: He’ll be an immediate factor in the slot, where he’s shown the ability to get open and run good routes. He can catch the ball, too. You can read more here.
No. 28 Alex Davis: He has a real shot to be NU’s starting boundary outside linebacker, but that role requires run-stopping and pass-rushing skill sets that Davis hasn’t quite shown yet. You can read more here.