LINCOLN — In the bustle of Nebraska football’s first spring practice under coach Mike Riley, one of the Huskers’ wide receivers, Brandon Reilly, found himself throwing a ball to one of the team’s new managers after a drill.
Except it wasn’t a manager. It was NU linebackers coach Trent Bray.
Reilly didn’t really know the guy.
“I thought he was going to kill me,” Reilly joked Wednesday, recalling the incident from one year ago.
“I felt terrible.”
It’s safe to assume that Reilly won’t make that mistake again, and it’s safe to assume NU coaches and players will be more familiar with one another in this year’s spring practice — which kicks off Saturday — than they were last spring. But the difference between the two seasons appears vast, and the comfort level seems significantly higher.
“We had probably the best winter since I’ve been here,” wideout Jordan Westerkamp said.
“There’s not much rejection,” defensive end Ross Dzuris said. “Everybody is willing to do everything.”
“Last spring, it kind of felt like we took a few steps back before we got going,” Reilly said. “But now I think we’re going to keep going forward, and it should be good for us.”
The head coach sees much the same thing. A better vibe. More clarity. More efficiency.
It just took a rough year to reach that point.
Nebraska finished 6-7 last season, and the seeds of that campaign, which included several close losses, were to some degree sown in a season full of transition and new data for players to digest from a brand new staff of coaches.
“We didn’t know what to expect at all,” I-back Terrell Newby said. “It was the first time seeing the playbook. We had a lot of missed assignments in the early practices.”
Reilly said it took longer because a few players seemed “out of the loop.” Dzuris said the transition was OK, but “there were a few guys who were very resistant.”
The result: a team that struggled to master details. Turnovers and penalties were bugaboos through most of last season. Nebraska’s offense couldn’t finish games on the field — and the defense couldn’t get stops — in losses to Illinois and Wisconsin, while losses to Northwestern and Purdue smacked of mediocre preparation and shoddy execution.
“We had the chance to learn about each other through adversity,” Riley said. “And we didn’t necessarily want that, but, as we look back on it, I’m most proud of the fact that everybody kept going. We kind of went to work. Nobody lost their minds. With all the adversity we had in a transition year, it could have been a real catastrophe. We played our best ball in the last month. I liked that.”
Although turnovers and miscues bit Nebraska hard in a 28-20 loss to Iowa, the Huskers won three of their last four games, including upsets of Michigan State and UCLA. Westerkamp said the UCLA win in the Foster Farms Bowl propelled the team in the offseason. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong gathered the older players on offense and gave a motivational chat after returning from holiday break. He took some of the heat for NU’s on-the-field errors, which Reilly and Westerkamp both said was impressive to teammates.
In winter conditioning — which ended this week with Nebraska players testing Wednesday at the East Stadium Athletic Performance Lab — Dzuris said leadership was a group effort. A few other players, including Newby and cornerback Joshua Kalu, cited linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey as a particular leader in the bunch.
Westerkamp said NU’s strength staff — led by head strength coach Mark Philipp — set a strong tone.
“The strength staff, they kicked our butts,” Westerkamp said. “It was tough, but we needed it. And the coaches were still in the loop. It was a pretty great winter overall.”
Riley pointed to a more exacting emphasis on technique and fundamentals in spring practice. The little things. When the Huskers slipped up there during last season, it showed in the results of games, players said.
“When we don’t do the little things right, we’ve seen how poorly it can go — and how fast it can — and, when we’re doing the right things, how good of a team we can be,” Dzuris said. “We realize that, and I think it’ll be better because of that.”
Said Newby: “We didn’t want to go 6-7, but we know how it feels. We can only go up from here.”
Riley no longer wants to look back. He gets that the transition was a strain on the whole program — players, coaches — but most of that unfamiliarity is gone. He added a new defensive line coach (John Parrella) and a new personnel executive (Billy Devaney) but, for the most part, the administration remains intact. The name tags are gone.
“Instead of thinking back at all, just go forward,” Riley said. “It feels like that to me. It feels like that part of it has taken over in the weight room and the vibe of the football team. A lot of the questions people had about who these people are — and, for us, who the players are — are kind of just, day to day, disappearing into life. And that feels much more comfortable.”
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