LINCOLN — Mike Riley isn’t just happy to be here. Not anymore. For a moment, perhaps, that was the case, the whirlwind of leaving an old home and embracing a new one. Not now. Not after Riley’s confident and edgy — well, edgy for him — posture at his signing day press conference.
We’d barely put a bow on the 2016 recruiting class when Riley was trying to press forward.
“I think what we have to do now — like today — going forward is really hit this thing hard and be able to get these guys here,” Riley said.
The second-year coach doubled down one night later at the Big Red Bash.
“We got this class, we’re talking to you guys about ’em, but then tomorrow they are old news and we are on to the next group,” Riley said.
Riley then backed up that urgent talk Friday by announcing that defensive line coach Hank Hughes wouldn’t return to the program.
I liked Hughes as a guy. Down-to-earth. Personable to reporters. He bought some land east of town. He had a “lived-in” feel about him. I don’t think issues with Hughes were solely related to recruiting, but he didn’t recruit well. Regardless of how his players felt about him as a coach, he didn’t attract any top talent for visits and he didn’t come close to wooing some of the region’s four-star talent.
Nebraska wasn’t even in the hunt for top guys. Can’t be that way.
Other than Ashland-Greenwood’s Ben Stille — who was coming to Nebraska no matter what — just one high school or junior college defensive lineman took an official visit during the season.
After a major power outage in sacks and quarterback hurries, Nebraska needed pass rushers. That was Hughes’ responsibility. NU landed one true rush end, Collin Miller. And Miller was a late offer, a Plan B.
Riley was asked on Wednesday if he thought the Huskers had grabbed those pass rushers. His answer?
“I think we might have found it in a linebacker here,” Riley said.
Case closed. Defensive line job open.
Nebraska recruited several key positions well. Quarterback, defensive back, linebacker — nailed it. NU did well at offensive line, though another tackle would have been nice. I like the running back, Tre Bryant. I like those two slot receivers, JD Spielman and Derrion Grim. I think the linebackers — from Florida, New Jersey and Louisiana, respectively — have potential. I also think it behooves position coach Trent Bray to mix them in early, even if it’s on special teams.
The Huskers get a “B” for this class. Surely, they’d planned on an “A.” It’s easiest to get an “A” recruiting class in the first full year, when there’s playing time and new visions to sell.
But NU lost two recruits to Clemson (Isaiah Simmons and Tremayne Anchrum) and one recruit to Louisville (Desmond Fitzpatrick) when it firmly expected to land all three. The staff mishandled the recruitment of Noah Fant. It went many dry months during the season without a commitment.
It wasn’t perfect. And in Riley’s signing day comments, you sensed urgency. They were echoed in an interview by his director of player personnel, Ryan Gunderson.
“We need to make more of a focused effort to get those kids here for camps and seeing them in person,” Gunderson said of local prospects. “In the end, you’re going to trust your eyes a lot more than you will the opinion of another person.”
Gunderson specifically noted another thing the staff wants in recruits: self-discipline.
“We want tough kids who want to work hard and who love playing football,” Gunderson said. “Who love playing football so much that they’ll take care of business in the classroom — who will never let the work in the classroom stop them from playing football.”
Yep, the Riley ship is tightening. As it must. The “seasons of reasons,” as it were, is over. Those first six games in 2016? Nebraska can win them all. Did you know Nebraska had a higher-rated 2016 recruiting class than 11 of its 12 opponents in 2016? Only Ohio State landed a better-rated class.
For as hard as you think it is to recruit to NU, it’s still easier than at most places.
For as much hand-wringing as Husker fans do, it’s still a top 25 class off a 6-7 season. It’s still pretty dang good.
Riley clearly wants better. In the sunset of his career, he has to recruit, develop, game plan and coach better than he ever has. Whether he accomplishes those tasks remains to be seen, but I think he’s up for trying. His energy and mood this week implied as much.
“We’re going to make a big effort, starting Monday, on really getting players evaluated in the beginning of the recruiting process,” Riley said. “Probably, in saying that, we’ve got to, for next year, get even further ahead.”
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