Still sunny after a stormy fall

Nebraska coach Mike Riley says he thinks the Huskers can build off a strong finish to last season. “I know that sounds late, but in our first year, we found out more about ourselves as we went. We ran the ball well against Michigan State. We’ve got to blame ourselves — look at the sequence of calling, how we call plays.”


LINCOLN — Mike Riley is an amazing chap. Nebraska’s football coach has lived in a hotel for the past year. And he’s still smiling.

Riley and his wife, Dee, still haven’t decided when or if to build a house in Lincoln that won’t trigger Dee’s allergies. But now they’re considering renting a downtown condo.

Hey, that’s progress.

Could be the theme for 2016.

Either that, or “unsettled.” Riley is figuratively still unpacking boxes in his program after a 6-7 first season that was a roller coaster of football and emotions.

Change in offensive identity. Dismissing an assistant coach after one season. Taking an eraser to some schemes and seeing if there’s a better way.

Riley came to NU a year ago with a reputation as a coach who had done things the same way with the same coaches at Oregon State. But there’s an urgency to his business at Nebraska.

On one hand, you don’t want to panic after one season, especially with several close losses. But Riley is getting proactive, perhaps setting a tone for the team in 2016.

“Nobody that came here expects 5-7 is acceptable,” Riley said. “We know we failed. We know it’s got to get better. How are we going to do that?”

Riley has a spiral notebook with a list of things he and the staff have been evaluating since the Foster Farms Bowl. The 62-year-old coach notes with a smile that while most coaches might type these on a computer, he finds the old-school notebook easier to use while traveling (recruiting).

Organization is paramount these days in north Stadium. I had a 30-minute block with Riley, until his assistant, Hilary O’Bryan, knocked on his door and told him it was time for his academics meeting.

Change is also in the air.

Q: First question on Hank Hughes. Did you fire him?

A: “I did. Hank is a good football coach, a great guy. I won’t comment on specifics, just to say it was an overall evaluation of where we needed to go.

“It’s very similar to what we’re doing right now: evaluating a need to get better. It’s all a matter of how it all fits, how we can get better, whether it’s run a zone play or recruiting. One of my jobs is to continually evaluate what we have to do to get better.”

Q: What are you looking for in a replacement? Young? Veteran? Good recruiter?

A: “I’m putting a profile together. It’s going to be a blend of football coach, recruiter and right staff member. I’ve got an initial list of 50 people that I’ve pared down to 10, from across the country, people who contacted us.”

Q: Has time changed your perspective on last season?

A: “Some of it’s painfully obvious. Look around at the teams that are winning, and there are common denominators.”

Turnover margin and penalties come to mind. Riley says to be a championship team, the run game and defense need to be in the top three in the Big Ten.

Q: You have a new defensive line coach coming in. Is pass rush the area that needs fixing?

A: “We were painfully bad in pass defense, as everybody knows. Problems in coverages and technique, big play prevention. Those are big topics.

“We have to help our players technically. We were not good on the deep ball. How do you get better? You practice it more. But you can’t have a guy run and cover 50 deep balls in practice. You just kill him.

“How do you play it? How do you get a guy in better shape to see and play the ball? We are breaking that down as we speak. We’ve played quarters coverage forever. How do we do that better? What else can we do?”

Personnel helps. Riley says the staff found “two pretty talented corners” in Chris Jones and Joshua Kalu by season’s end. Why then? The coach says the season was a long process of getting to know the personnel.

“We played better in the last month, and those guys can be pretty good.”

Q: Is that kind of what happened with the running game against UCLA? Or was that more UCLA’s lack of run defense?

A: “Some teams are easier to run against. If you just watch UCLA’s season, the teams that did well against them ran the ball right at them. So it became pretty obvious as I watched all the film, this is a direction we need to go.

“This is what this team has to do to be good: run the ball, be selective what you do in the passing game, make these isolated throws from the quarterback because you’re running the ball well.

“I know that sounds late, but in our first year, we found out more about ourselves as we went. We ran the ball well against Michigan State. We’ve got to blame ourselves — look at the sequence of calling, how we call plays. We’ll take all the criticism. We get it.

“But, God dang, we had so many chances to win games. I looked at it the other day, the games and the scores. God darned, this thing could have been so drastically different with a few plays.”

Q: Why do you think you didn’t run it more? Was it a lack of trust in your line or the backs?

A: “I don’t think we had the confidence to run it all the time, so we had a pretty good mixture. Frankly, you learn more as you go.”

Q: The bowl game would indicate you can run out of this offense if you focus on it.

A: “I hope so. I think we can look in hindsight: This might have been a better identity for this team all along. And it was something, unfortunately, we uncovered late. But you still have to be able to do both. There are going to be (defenses) who will try and take it away if you are one-dimensional.”

Q: Does a running identity mean a Tommy Armstrong who runs more — or runs like he did in the bowl game (10 rushes, 76 yards)? With more quarterback depth, can you run Tommy more?

A: “I really like the number of times, and how Tommy complemented the run game in the bowl game. The designated runs. There weren’t an overabundance of them, but boy, were they effective.

“I see glimpses of that in the NFL, with Russell Wilson. You don’t overdo it, but when you do run, it’s effective.”

Q: Why wait until the bowl game?

A: “This quarterback run deal is new to us. We are discovering the subtleties in how to block it. We have so much evidence here, video across the country, our league opponents and also the teams they played. You can do a lot of (studying) here. That’s what our guys are doing right now.”

Q: What about Tommy’s turnover issues, decision-making? He’s a senior. He knows what to do and what not to do. What can you do for him at this point?

A: “Continue to teach him about what to do with the football. We teach through progressions. If Jordan Westerkamp is covered — sometimes I can eliminate Westerkamp at pre-snap. I see this coverage. I don’t like it. I’m going right here. Making good, quick decisions.

“And I think this is big with Tommy: don’t make a bad play worse. Against Northwestern, he throws a pick-six. It was totally because the protection broke down. He’s trying to make something happen. Throw the ball away. Punt the ball.”

Q: If he continues to struggle there, will you play someone else this season?

A: “My goal is to help him not do that. I’m not looking to find another guy. Our job is to help him. It might sound shallow ... I think we made progress in the bowl practice and bowl game with decision-making.

“It’s a great leaping-off place to say ‘this is why we won the game, guys. We ran the ball effectively, we took care of the football, we threw for a high percentage and we were very defined in the passing game.’”

* * *

When you go 6-7, offseasons are busy. But Riley has told his staff to “pretend you came from Mars and you don’t know anything about football. Start over. The stance, the first movement, all those things. Make sure we’re putting these players in the right position to succeed.”

He added this tweak: having his position coaches focus on potential recruits at their position and rank them by priority. It’s something he never did at Oregon State.

Maybe this is what you do when you go 6-7. It could also be a veteran coach saying that what he did at Oregon State, and how he did it, won’t fly here.

Maybe even defining this offense with some staple plays. It’s all on the table.

The staff, he says, has to use what it learned to win three of four games to end the season.

“We were a pretty good bootleg team. What do we need to add to that? The whole bubble screen game, we’re studying how to do that better. That’s a good percentage pass that if you run the ball well, can make you better.

“Alabama won their last two playoff games running bubbles and bootlegs.”

Riley says he felt urgency his whole career at Oregon State, that he usually followed a bad year with a good one. But the definitions of good and bad at Nebraska are on an entirely different level — and the noise is higher.

“I don’t pay attention, but I’m not naive,” Riley said. “I can almost tell how people react to me.

“People say don’t pay attention to the noise. So I know there’s noise. I don’t have to hear it. I know it’s there. But I’ve been in this business for a long time.

“My wife and I were having breakfast this morning and a guy came up and said he appreciated how the team never gave up. And I appreciated that. This thing could have been a catastrophe. We played our best ball the last month. I take encouragement from that.”

Soon, strangers won’t be able to stop by during breakfast.

“We’re having some fun exploring finding a place downtown,” Riley said. “It’s exciting. Kind of like starting over.”

Could be the theme of the year.

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Tom is The World-Herald's lead sports columnist. Since he started in Omaha in 1991, he's covered just about anything you can imagine. Follow him on Twitter @TomShatelOWH. Phone: 402-444-1025.

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