Shatel: Flash is on the field for the Huskers, but progress will be on sideline

Mike Riley and his staff have been brilliant off the field, but they had a few missteps on the field in their first season. Can they rebound in year two?

LINCOLN — Red pants and white disco belts are for oldsters whose definition of Hip(p) is Isaiah Moses.

If Nebraska players want to look like Pat Boone (sorry, generational reference), that’s fine — as long as they’re dressing for success.

As Nebraska football traditions go, uniforms are down the list.

Paramount is a little thing called coaching.

For decades, the staffs of Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne produced some of the best-drilled teams every year in college football. Heisman talent was optional. But teams that looked coached were an annual tradition.

Which brings us to Year 2 of what some cynics call the Oregon State Experiment.

When you talk about expectations for this 2016 Nebraska season, to me, it’s not about a magic number of wins or where the Big Ten office sends the team bowling for dollars.

It’s about personnel management, clock management, penalties, turnovers, play calling that adjusts to how the game is going and even how the defense is playing, special teams that find an edge.

It’s about coaching.

I always say national pundits mislabel Husker fans as bloodthirsty types who demand championships or else. Most people realize the ’90s were a perfect storm.

I say most Nebraskans want to compete for championships, and sure, bring home some banners. But most of all, it’s about playing good, hard, smart football. Looking as if you’re coached. Not being embarrassed.

And that’s what made last season so hard to take: so many losses that could have been avoided with better management and, um, coaching.

Off the field, Riley and his staff have been a home run.

As a Nebraska coach, he’s “The Natural.” But can he knock one out of the park in Memorial Stadium?

This is not too much to ask of these gents. Nearly two years ago, Shawn Eichorst sold their hiring as smart coaches, men who identify and develop talent. They will squeeze water out of a rock.

If this is what they do, this season would be a good time to start producing water.

A lot of people — but not everyone — gave Riley & Co. a pass for 2015. Sometimes these things click early. Last year they did not. It’s over.

But it would not be accurate to say the staff did no coaching. There’s a saying that coaches do more coaching when there’s adversity, when they’re losing.

It was impressive how Riley’s staff kept coaching, kept plugging away, kept the team together by being consistent every day, even with a lot of Nebraskans giving them the Internet version of the evil eye.

And when 48 pass attempts against Northwestern became a successful run-oriented plan to beat UCLA, the motto was, “Better later than never.”

This is a coaches conference. There are three elite coaches in the East Division alone. The West is no slouch. You’ll have to have talent to win the Big Ten, but at the very least you have to be solid. Few mistakes. Look the part.

That’s the part NU hasn’t mastered in the Big Ten. There is certainly enough talent, on both sides of the ball, for Riley & Co. to push the race all the way to Thanksgiving.

But this is why they were hired. They aren’t learning on the job. This staff has been trying to beat USC and Oregon and Washington and Stanford for years, and they’ve been doing it together. There should not be any surprises in the Big Ten West.

What will Mark Banker do? The defense has looked in sync during preseason practice, tackling well, flying around. The back seven look good. Will Banker try a three-man rush and use some backers to help? Let’s see what he’s got.

What will Bruce Read do? I love the idea of a special teams coach, but that means special teams can’t just be solid. It needs to provide an edge. There are several talented freshmen who might play — is this where they’ll make their mark? Can De’Mornay Pierson-El get back to where he was?

That’s a chess piece Danny Langsdorf could use, too.

When I see this season, I think of Langsdorf. He’s got a lot of chips in front of him. Offensive weapons galore. And yet, the riches bring questions, debates, temptations.

Which running back? How many do you use? So many gifted receivers, and a tight end/H-back who looks NFL-ready.

And what about Tommy Armstrong?

There’s so much talk about the UCLA game plan, that NU is going to run more, that Langsdorf is suddenly going to start using Armstrong like Tommie Frazier or Eric Crouch.

I’ll believe it when I see it. The quarterback run game is not Riley’s or Langsdorf’s expertise. They’ve got a better handle on it, and it would be the smart play, but it seems a reach to think it will suddenly become a staple of their offense — for one season.

The question of this season is how Langsdorf will manage Armstrong’s game. Armstrong had a couple of ill-advised throws for interceptions in a scrimmage last Saturday. Can they reel that in?

Unlike last year, when they were just introduced, there is a plan.

“We definitely do have a plan, how we’re going to use him and what we’re trying to do,” Langsdorf said. “We just have a better understanding of each other.”

Where it will get interesting for Langsdorf is if he tries to manage Armstrong by running the ball — and has too many quality receivers out there throwing blocks. Will Langsdorf feel an obligation — a temptation — to get everyone their “touches?”

It’s a sin in college football to go away from the hot hand or whatever is working. Langsdorf says he’s rode the hot hand at Oregon State and will do it here — unless ...

“We do try to spread it around, but if a guy is hot, we’ll stick with what’s working and make sure we get the most out of it,” Langsdorf said. “There’s a fine line there. We have to get a lot of guys involved.

“I think there are enough balls to go around. But we have to be unselfish, too, and make sure if something’s working, we stick with it.”

Langsdorf expects to return to his comfort zone — calling plays from the press box — this season. Last year he was on the sideline, in part to talk to his new pupil, Armstrong. Now they can talk via headset.

Everyone expects this season to go smoother. As offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh says, “From last year to this year, it’s night and day.” But there’s still work to be done.

“We had a couple of plays today (Tuesday) where we didn’t get lined up in the correct formation,” Langsdorf said. “Those things keep you up at night. We have to get better at those things.”

At the very least, that’s the expectation for this season.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1025, tom.shatel@owh.com, twitter.com/tomshatelOWH

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