For Riley, a better team may be a bike ride away

Husker coach Mike Riley said he’ll split his team into two practice fields like he did early last year to give young players more snaps.

LINCOLN — Mike Riley has kept us busy, writing all sorts of headlines. But it was a throwaway in small type that set off sirens.

To wit: Riley says he and wife Dee are looking for a condo in downtown Lincoln.

If my email had sound effects, it would have been a three-alarm fire.

Said one: “He’s not buying a house? That means he’s going to leave.”

And: “I’m really upset about this. I wasn’t sure if he would like it here. He needs to give it a chance.”

I passed along the concern from several Husker fans to Riley. The coach immediately laughed.

“No, no, no. We’re not going anywhere,” Riley said. “We love it here.”

Why would a head coach live in a downtown condo? Two reasons. One, his wife has a chemical sensitivity to certain paints, varnishes and other materials found in a majority of houses.

Also: When you are empty nesters, a house isn’t always a necessity. In fact, it can be too much. A condo in a thriving downtown, close to work, can be the ticket.

“Hey, I’ll have to get the bike out,” Riley said.

The punch line to all this: a few months ago, some fans weren’t so concerned whether Riley was staying.

But what a difference a bustling offseason makes.

Riley fired his defensive line coach after one season — one 6-7 season — when Husker Nation wondered if the veteran head coach would stand pat.

Then he brought in John Parrella, a Nebraska football fairy tale, to coach the defensive line. Then topped it off by hiring former National Football League General Manager Billy Devaney, the sort of move that says the coach is not behind the curve, he’s ahead.

Nobody knows if any of these moves will help beat Oregon.

But as spring practice begins Saturday, the mood around Lincoln Land is considerably brighter. Riley has succeeded in flipping the narrative — not an easy trick for a coach who debuted with a losing record in Memorial Stadium.

The Foster Farms Bowl win over UCLA has something to do with that, too. As does Riley’s promise — with Foster Farms proof — to take a hard look at building an offense around the run game.

There’s all the talk — about learning from adversity, banding together and the senior quarterback rallying the fellow seniors — that arrives like a welcome spring breeze. Not sure what it means, but it feels and sounds good.

There’s a freshman quarterback, a fresh-faced kid born to run this offense, who gives fans and media something to sink their teeth into. Will Patrick O’Brien make an impact? More on that in a minute.

Mostly, there’s the optimism that comes with the idea that nobody will need name tags this spring. Coaches and players alike know what to expect from one another, so can we please get on with the business of beating Purdue?

“Last spring after I ran a route, I tossed the ball to coach Bray,” said receiver Brandon Reilly, referring to NU’s 33-year-old linebackers coach, Trent Bray. “I thought he was a manager. I felt terrible. I thought he was going to kill me.”

All was forgiven after Michigan State, Brandon.

Familiarity should breed confidence and trust — staples of winning that were in short supply last season. Confidence and trust. That’s the theme of the spring.

Riley and his staff know who their quarterback is, as well as running backs, receivers, defensive backs, linebackers. What they need to figure out: who’s going to block and rush the passer.

Some observations on what to watch when the footballs fly again Saturday:

» The Senior Quarterback Factor:

Tommy Armstrong arrives saying and doing all the right things. He met with the offensive seniors, planting seeds of urgency and talk of having the top offense in the Big Ten. There won’t be any quarterback dramas this spring; these practices are about mundane repetitions, and Tommy has a leg and arm up on the field. What we’ll watch is if Armstrong carries himself as the leader of the band, including getting in teammates’ faces if necessary. And, of course, playing with efficiency. Being that leader starts with playmaking. Do confidence and trust surround Armstrong?

» The Parrella Factor:

It was old times on Wednesday, seeing the former walk-on and defensive line bully dressed in Husker gear. He responded to questions with short, intense answers. No nonsense, thy initials are J.P.

There’s talent on the D-line, but it’s hard to know what Parrella will do with it. What’s worth watching: the impact of Parrella’s trademark intensity on not only the line, but the entire defense. Parrella always played with his crew cut on fire. He’ll coach that way, too, and my guess is, players won’t play unless they abide. And if Parrella gets his group to play like 10,000 maniacs, you can expect that to rub off on the rest of the Blackshirts.

» The Billy Devaney Factor:

What we learned from meeting Devaney on Wednesday is that he carries himself like a pro, and he’s excited to be here. I expect Devaney will be watching recruiting movie marathons. He’ll be at practice. He’ll take notes. He’ll make observations. And at some point, he may raise his hand in a coaches meeting and say, “Did you guys ever think about doing this …” And it might be the thing that wins the West Division.

» The Patrick O’Brien Factor:

The freshman quarterback’s name came up a few times at the press conference Wednesday. Look, here’s the deal. He’s one of five quarterbacks. The other four have a head start on him with knowing personnel, reads, progressions and what Danny Langsdorf likes for lunch.

There aren’t nearly enough reps in spring ball to make a quarterback competition. But think about this: The first time O’Brien nails a progression or throws a sweet pass downfield, the others will all notice. And inside their competitive furnaces, the heat will go up. NU starting quarterbacks haven’t been pressed in a long time. This spring, the fifth-team guy might light a fire under the whole position.

» The Mikale Wilbon Factor:

If Riley wants a more efficient run game, he needs more than an offensive line. He needs a difference-maker at running back he can trust with carrying the loaf of bread many times.

Wilbon is a promising young back who got lost on the depth chart last season in the name of learning the offense, pass protection and running routes. Good news: he has the actual art of beating defenders with his legs down pat. More good news: Riley brought up Wilbon’s name on Wednesday. Devine Ozigbo and Terrell Newby are the main men here, but a Wilbon sighting would make the position better and give Riley the running coach more options. The best teams always have more options.

» The College Kid Factor:

For all that they went through last season, on the field and in the social media trenches, the players have returned in good mental health. That’s no surprise. Kids are very resilient, more so than adults/boosters/sportswriter types.

Nebraska players all looked and sounded fresh, oozing optimism and looking forward. A bowl game that validated their resiliency and a rigorous offseason program have them focused.

And then some.

“Six practices until spring break,” Reilly said.

Ohio State can wait.

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Video: Sam McKewon and Jon Nyatawa talk spring practice

Video: Riley on building momentum 

Video: Husker spring football preview

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