LINCOLN — Mike Riley isn’t sure if lots of other college football teams are being decimated by injuries — muscle-based or otherwise — but he knows his team has been hit hard with them, especially on defense.
Riley is concerned enough that he convened a “big meeting” last week with the key stakeholders in NU’s strength and conditioning staff to ask what, if anything, the Huskers can do differently in their training regimen.
That’s a bold, rare step. But the Huskers’ defense has been hit by such a rash of groin and hamstring injuries — linebackers Michael Rose-Ivey and Josh Banderas have been particularly slowed by groin problems — that Riley is looking for answers.
“We’ve got an inordinate amount of groin and hamstring injuries throughout fall camp and the early season, and we want to avoid it,” Riley said in an interview in the hallway after he mentioned the meeting in his Monday press conference. “And I’m not saying the lifting caused it. But I’m wondering. I’m just asking the question to make them think about it, to come up with another plan. Just like in football: You have to continue to find the best way.”
Already, just four games into the season, Nebraska has adjusted its practice habits. Riley turned Monday practices down a notch. It’s more of a jog than a full-bore practice. Thursday practices are, too. Tuesday and Wednesday practices are at a higher tempo.
Depth and health are that significant an issue on defense. The offense is pretty healthy. None of Nebraska’s five top linemen has missed a start yet. The wide receivers look fresh and fast. The running backs — the two who play with any regularity — haven’t come up limping, although Terrell Newby’s ankle got tight in the Southern Mississippi game.
But NU was missing Banderas, Rose-Ivey, Vincent Valentine and Jack Gangwish against the Golden Eagles. Linebacker Marcus Newby came up gimpy after playing a solid game. Linebacker depth was an issue, Riley said, “since the day after we took the job and looked at the depth chart.” But it’s really dire now, and that’s no knock on guys like Chris Weber and Luke Gifford. If they go down — and Weber was a little banged up against Southern Mississippi — there isn’t much left.
“We’re trying to come up with something,” Riley said. “They can tell me we’re practicing too hard ... and I can ask them, ‘Are we lifting too much on this day or not enough on that day?’ I’m trying to examine it all — any possibilities that might help these guys.”
Riley expects some answers to his questions soon. Staff members said they’d examine the issue with their available tools, including the player-tracking GPS systems embedded under the shoulder pads during practice.
Until answers come, Riley’s comments spotlight a few things:
» The linebacker spot is more important in this defense than it initially appeared — especially if the opposing offense hits a few deep passes — and injuries are significantly affecting the pass defense. NU linebackers are responsible in part for the middle of the field and shorter routes that opponents have feasted on in the last two weeks. That’s a big problem against several Big Ten teams that like to use backs and tight ends in the passing game.
» There’s a sense of urgency not to drop this season to lost opportunities. If Riley is looking for training and weightlifting adjustments now, in week five of his era, complacency isn’t an issue.
» Just when you think Nebraska might rely too much on the walk-on program, be glad it’s there. Without it, the Huskers are in deep trouble, emptying the tank of true freshmen on the roster. Any team that does that is signing up for four or five losses. It’s just too big of a jump for most young players.
Since the Miami game, there has been an Internet meme rolling around that Nebraska had far too many former and current walk-ons on the travel roster. That’s a fan base getting much too enamored with recruiting ratings that consistently underrate or flat-out ignore Midwestern kids. Walk-ons are Nebraska’s natural buffer so injuries don’t wreck a team.
“It hits right between the eyes,” Riley said of walk-ons making an impact this season.
» Most important, Riley is trying to leverage the resources Nebraska has — another significant advantage of this program — and is using a CEO mindset to do it. Riley surely had a hankering to call plays again at NU. He did quite a bit at Oregon State. Wisely, he’s held off.
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