LINCOLN — It’s dead week on Nebraska’s campus, where college students cram for final exams. But inside his office, football coach Mike Riley has been plenty busy.
While most of his assistants are on the road recruiting, Riley has spent the whole week meeting with Husker players to evaluate their spring practice performance and summer plans. By Friday morning, when he sits for an hourlong newspaper interview, he’s finished with almost all the players who have signed up throughout the week, with a red pen, at the desk outside Riley’s office.
The last meeting of the week, Riley says, belongs to freshman quarterback Patrick O’Brien, whom Riley would like to see redshirt this year, despite having a strong spring.
Riley meets the players in one of his recruiting rooms. In one corner, there is a white board with offensive formations and plays drawn in two columns. Riley sits on a long black leather couch. Players, when they meet with him, sit in a black leather chair across from the couch. Riley has a thick binder containing pages on each player on the roster — scholarship guys and walk-ons alike. By the time he meets with the player, he’s received an update on his progress in many other areas — academics and strength and conditioning included.
“I tell them I’ve got ‘the book’ on them,” Riley jokes.
In some of the meetings, Riley is joined by Dan Van De Riet, director of operations, and Ryan Gunderson, director of player personnel. Also joining almost all of the meetings is Billy Devaney, Riley’s longtime friend, special assistant and executive director of player personnel.
Devaney, a former NFL general manager who joined the program just before spring practice, has been valuable already, Riley said, in talking with players about how they can improve and helping shape Nebraska’s recruiting evaluation process.
“Billy’s evaluated so many people through the years, his use there is really important to us — evaluating the player and the person, the right fit,” Riley said. “That thing will grow as he gets a good handle on our team. And he’s also been good in watching, with me, film of our own team. Talking about our own players, and looking at how we practice. I always like talking about how we practice. He’s already been a nice, good influence there.”
Nebraska has completed its second spring under Riley. The Huskers’ first season — a 6-7 roller coaster with bad losses to Big Ten doormats Illinois and Purdue and big wins over Michigan State and UCLA — is in the rearview mirror, but still useful. That 2015 team had flaws the 2016 team must correct if it hopes to win the Big Ten West or entertain notions of a league crown. Riley has used the Foster Farms Bowl win over the Bruins as an example of what the Huskers want to be this season.
Run the ball well. Create turnovers and eliminate big plays on defense. Take care of the ball on offense. That’s the general idea.
Here’s another: build off a spring in which Riley liked the chemistry of his team. For as much focus as fans and media can put on some player departures — such as four defensive linemen — Riley says he’s excited about the team’s cohesion. The program is in the process of taking a survey, devised by an athletic department psychologist, that looks at the “influencers” inside the program. Players answer a series of questions, then put the survey in a dropbox.
Riley rattles off the gist of two of the questions.
» If your girlfriend were going to a party, which three teammates would you trust to take her?
» If someone — say an older woman — were stranded on the road, which three teammates would be most likely to help her?
Riley hasn’t looked at the results, but he figures, to some degree, that players will name teammates they know and like the best. Still, that gives him a picture of where leadership and influence reside on the team.
He said he’s enjoyed the player meetings. Most don’t take longer than 20 minutes. Some last just 10. Within the meetings, Riley said, a team portrait has emerged. It’s a team he likes a lot.
“This team is a good team,” he says, clenching a fist for conviction. The other hand holds a cup of coffee. “Just talking to players, even guys who are fourth string and have walked on and are fighting for their niche, they don’t feel like there are any cliques. I really like that. I want every guy to feel that comfort in the locker room — that this is home.”
Riley expanded on many parts of his program over an hour — strengths and weaknesses. The obvious place to start, after a season in which the Huskers ranked 105th in takeaways, 92nd in yards per play allowed, 75th in scoring defense and 84th in yards per pass allowed, is on defense, where Nebraska lost several players off the line, the place the casual fan believes to be the key to a great defense. Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine declared early for the NFL draft. Greg McMullen quit the game. Kevin Williams opted to transfer. All four could have been seniors suiting up for the Huskers this season.
It leads to the obvious question.
Q: Given that you lost what amounts to your entire starting defensive line — Maliek Collins, Vincent Valentine and Greg McMullen included — how can you improve on last year’s defensive numbers? What areas do you expect to make a big jump?
A: There’s two big things. One, we have defensive backs who can help us with takeaways. I think Joshua Kalu and Chris Jones have ball skills. Putting them in a position to make plays will be big. So I think we can improve takeaway-wise, and I know, I know we can improve preventing big plays. That has to do with being sound. And the gained experience by the two corners is big.
Q: Aren’t you putting a lot on those two cornerbacks to be good?
A: It’s always a vital, crucial area. Oh man, it became kind of spotlighted a year ago. We just gave up a lot of big plays on the edge, on the corners. But as the last month of the season progressed and those guys got to play more, we got better.
Q: So the defensive backs — how significant of a jump has that position group made in the last four months?
A: All of the sudden, that’s become an area that we have to rely on. When you lose those experienced front guys, it puts that much more emphasis on being sound in the back end. At the same time, they’re going to need more help from the front — from the guys who are still going to be playing there. I know we lost good players there. You don’t lose four guys who should be back, who are playing the best football of their lives — Maliek, Vince, Kevin and Greg should be playing their best football, and you lose them. OK, so how do you have a glass-half-full view there?
Q: How do you?
A: I think Kevin Maurice is a really good player. I think Mick Stoltenberg will come back healthy and hungry, and we really liked what we saw in Mick. Can he bounce back from his injury? I think he will. Then you add two talented redshirt freshmen in the Davis twins. Talented. I think they grew in the spring. Consistency’s a big factor, but I think both have big playmaking ability. These guys will be really good. They’ll be talked about, I think, eventually, in the way that some past defensive tackles have been. And then you’ve got the elevation in a fifth guy in Peyton Newell. And the more I watch this guy, the more I think, ‘Peyton can go in the game and play.’ Plus a guy like Logan Rath. We’ve got six defensive tackles. That’s not bad. Six guys.
Of course, it would have been better if some combination of Collins, Valentine, McMullen and Williams had returned. In Riley’s first year, he chose to hire Hank Hughes — a lifelong coach on the East Coast with no particular tie to Nebraska — as his defensive line coach. He fired Hughes after one season and replaced him with former Nebraska defensive lineman John Parrella, a near polar opposite from Hughes in terms of regional familiarity and coaching demeanor.
Q: Hindsight is always tough, but if you had hired John Parrella last year, do you think all those guys would have left?
A: That’s a really good question. Let me answer that by saying that I think John has made a really great first impression with these guys. When I ask them all about their relationship with their coach, before they even speak, almost all the defensive linemen smile. So he’s made a really good start with them. John is an enthusiastic teacher, and then he’s a detailed technician. John is a great, great story. How many walk-on football players end up being 12-year NFL veterans? How many times do you see that? That’s kind of how he played. John outworked people and he knew exactly what to do. He’s brought that all to coaching. That’s why I hired him. This guy was a real pro. If Junior Seau were alive, and you asked him who he respected the most on our team, he would say John Parrella. And there’s a reason for that.
Q: Still, McMullen chose to leave. You had a close relationship with him and respected his opinion. As he took his leave of absence and eventually left the team, was there any part of you that said, ‘Greg, don’t do this’?
A: I really wanted to. I really did. I love Greg McMullen. I loved talking to him. I thought he just had kind of that well-rounded perspective of life and football. And he also had an honest, open bluntness about the team, without being a snitch. He was really helpful to me. I really wanted to talk him out of it because I liked being around him, and I had one more year to do that. At the same time, I appreciated his bigger picture, so I elected not to make that pitch. I pointed out some stuff, about what he’s passing up as a senior. It was a great leadership role for his team and for his group in particular. I encouraged him to really think about it, because I don’t want him to be that guy who, in a month or a year or 10 years, regretted it.
Q: Is the door still open for him to return?
A: Oh, yeah.
Q: You think he might return?
A: No. Heck, he’s got a job at Boys Town. That guy, he’s got plans. The beauty of being that well-rounded person, all of the sudden, as he gets older, a vision for who he wants to be and what he wants to do has been solidified. And when I gave him that little bit of time off during spring ball, I think he was able to self-evaluate and realize it. I didn’t think, when we initially talked, it would result in him not playing again.
One of McMullen’s comments after his departure, made to The World-Herald’s Mike’l Severe on “The Bottom Line,” is that he had few conversations over the last year with NU defensive coordinator Mark Banker. The Husker defense struggled throughout the season, as Banker’s quarters scheme didn’t seem to sink in with the team. Many wonder what might Year Two look like with Banker’s defense.
Q: Do you think Banker has a better pulse on this defense and personnel than last year? The general impression I got last year is that wasn’t always the case. And that wasn’t all on him, but do you think his relationship with what remains is better than last year?
A: Yes, I do, and I think it has to do with growing trust with the players and knowledge by the coaches. For whatever reasons, we had a more difficult time with it defensively than offensively.
A: The one thing that you can’t quantify is personality. There are going to be some guys where transition is just harder, and I think it may be the case that there were just more of those on defense. Older guys. Stronger personalities. Maybe more thoughtful guys. A lot of variables there. It’s hard to say, ‘this is it for sure,’ but looking at it, I think that was the case.
The interview moved on to offense, where Riley wants one thing more than almost anything else: fewer turnovers. The Huskers had 27 giveaways last season, which tied for 116th in the nation and was 13th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten. Of those 27 giveaways, 21 were interceptions. Only four teams threw more last season.
“We have to get a lot better at not giving it away,” Riley said. “If you really want to win a championship ...”
“Well, that’s probably the main difference from where we were (6-7 overall) to not inconceivably playing for the conference championship.”
Q: A lot of those giveaways were interceptions. How far do you think Tommy Armstrong has come in that area — of not making bad plays?
A: Tommy has advanced and we have advanced in what to do. I don’t want to use the UCLA game as a total microcosm of how they should look, because they’re not all going to look like that. I’d like that — that’d be fine with me! — but, in general, we’ve learned more about the utilization of talent, and in the passing game the kinds of patterns and progressions you want to emphasize and you want to set more of an individual plan for the year, knowing that’s not necessarily a lifetime thought, but a specific thought for your team and your quarterback.
Q: How many interceptions would be the goal? Obviously, zero is the ultimate goal, but how many would you like?
Q: Five for the whole season?
A: Yes. Something like that. The other end of it, touchdown passes, was good. There were a lot of positives. But, offensively, there was one glaring negative, and that’s turnovers.
Q: Your two top quarterbacks, are they pretty much set in stone?
Q: Tommy Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe?
Q: No question?
A: I don’t like to say the door is closed to competition. I think that’s almost unfair, but I’ve also talked to these guys about where it stands and what I think will take place in the future. Tommy’s going to start. Ryker’s the backup. Will that change through competition in fall camp? It could. But, from what I know, I don’t think it will. But I’ve got to give people some hope, too. My encouragement would be to work hard.
Q: And if players get hurt?
A: In a blink of an eye, things change.
Q: Is Tanner Lee (a Tulane transfer who arrives this summer) going to get another year of eligibility?
A: My guess is, from what I’ve seen through the years, is yes. That’s a guess.
Q: Is Patrick O’Brien going to redshirt?
A: I’d like him to. He looked good, though. Looked comfortable for a young kid.
Q: He’s not irritated at redshirting?
A: I don’t think so. He’s my last interview today.
Q: AJ Bush wants to stick around, right?
A: As far as I know, yes. Every bit of my conversation with him (says so). I don’t have a crystal ball on that, so I’m not sure. That position is hard as a guy gets a little bit older.
Q: But if he’s willing to wait one more year, he’ll have as clear of a shot as Tanner or Patrick?
A: Yes. Absolutely. In that way, patience would be good.
Q: Other than the turnovers, did you think your offense had a bad year last year?
A: No, I didn’t. I don’t look at stats much until late, as the season progresses. But our production was good. I also made the point that I’d like more balance. I’d like to be able to run the ball, like to keep the production up, balance it out with a better running attack, and do the obvious that everybody knows about — improve the turnover margin.
The interview moved to the offensive line, where Nebraska will have at least three new starters, and perhaps four, if redshirt freshman Michael Decker from Omaha North makes a move at center.
Q: How much better can you be on the offensive line despite the new starters?
A: Before spring, that was where most of the eyes were and how it looked. And it turned out that both lines, offense and defense, were focal points that way. We’re pretty stable at tight ends, wideouts, running back. Good picture. The offensive line was really hard for me, because I know the value of experience there. It’s truly a deal where, year to year, they play better ball. They play their best because they know so much more and they’re physically grown to the point where they’re effective. Our best teams at Oregon State were with veteran lines that were down the road a little bit. I was worried about that. I can’t say we’re a proven commodity but, boy, do I like the look of it right now.
A: Nick Gates has a ton of talent. The move to left tackle was good. David Knevel has tons of tools as a right tackle. He’s big, he’s athletic, he’s smart and I thought he played physically in the spring. I thought that was a major, major question at right tackle. I feel real good about it.
Riley is bullish on the interior of the line, including senior center Dylan Utter and sophomore guards Tanner Farmer and Jerald Foster. The latter, Riley said, had as “good of a spring camp as anybody.”
“That group, in a short amount of time, formed a good chemistry,” said Riley, who proceeded to rattle off praise about every lineman on the two-deep roster.
Q: It’s pretty clear you like your offensive line, even though it’s young. Do you have an affinity for them?
A: I really do. Watching the formation of that group, and how they performed and blocked in spring practice, is very encouraging.
Q: It’s a personable group. Outgoing personalities. Do you like that?
A: I do. They have a real good chemistry in their room. They blend in with the rest of the team.
Q: Is De’Mornay Pierson-El on track to return from his knee injury or is he looking at a redshirt?
A: You can know (redshirting) is a possibility down the road, but let’s go the other way and work toward playing. Let biology take its course and let your work take over. What I’ve promised him is that my advice will be based on what is best physically for him. If he’s ready, healthy, confident, all that, he’ll help us. I’ve still got that same vision of what he can do in this offense that I had for him right after spring ball last year. I’d like that to take place this year. But that decision, we don’t have to make that right now.
Q: Does he have to be ready by fall camp, or would you be willing to let it ride for three or four games into the season?
A: I suppose, depending on our situation, you could let it ride, but I think for his peace of mind, you’d like to know earlier than that. The hardest part for De’Mornay is mentally not being involved. You realize the physical part of it, you rehab and you train, but it’s hard for a guy who had such a good place with this team as a freshman, to, all of the sudden, not be in the game plan. It’s hard. Getting past that is the hardest thing for him.
Riley indicates few changes to the running back or wideout positions other than what fans already know. Mikale Wilbon emerged this spring to become a third I-back Nebraska will use, joining Terrell Newby and Devine Ozigbo. Three players — Graham Nabity, Harrison Jordan and Luke McNitt — will combine to fill Andy Janovich’s role from last season. The wideouts may be the team’s best position group.
How does Riley incorporate all these weapons without weighing down the offense? He’s given the example of a chain restaurant with a giant menu, compared to a restaurant with a small one.
“In-N-Out,” Riley says about the latter. “There’s only three things on it.”
Q: So which menu will your offense in 2016 be closer to?
A: I think we’d take that Cheesecake Factory menu and pare it down. I put the graduate assistants on it yesterday — I want them to make me a video of it, a snapshot of our offense coming out of spring. And I’ll work with (offensive coordinator) Danny Langsdorf and I’ll pare that thing back. My goal was not to have an overabundance of offense in the spring. Frankly, I think our variety can come from our play-action passes and our screen passes. But what we do in the dropback game — that menu’s gotta be pared down.
Q: Was your menu too big last year?
A: Yeah, probably.
Q: But I’m guessing you’ve had menus that were much bigger than last year, right?
A: Yes. Older quarterbacks. When you have Matt Moore, or Sean Mannion, who had been playing since he was a freshman, you didn’t worry about adding anything. He had such a good handle on what you were already doing that you weren’t going to blow a gasket.
But, Riley said, an offensive mind has to be thoughtful with quarterbacks. He uses a word: “careful.” Nebraska’s offense, while often explosive last season, was not always careful with the ball. That’ll need to change in 2016.
“We’ve always been thoughtful about that,” Riley said of not overloading the offense. “And heading into this year, we really have to be really, really careful.”
* * *
It’s an interesting way to look at a team entering the summer. Riley feels good about the direction, but mentions needing to be careful, too.
It’ll be intriguing to see if he can strike that balance.
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