LINCOLN, Neb. -- The intrinsic question around Nebraska football camp last month -- dating to the final hours of last year, in fact, after the Cornhuskers completed a flat finish to Mike Riley’s second season -- involves the quality that every coach, player and fan demands from their program.
Progress. In a competitive industry, if you’re not progressing, you’re regressing.
So just where does Nebraska, bound Saturday for an intersectional clash at Oregon, stand after 27 games under Riley?
It’s a question that requires a deeper look than the three-game improvement in victories from 2015 to 2016 at this once dominant program now seeking its first conference title since 1999.
Adding to the complexity is a 43-36 Nebraska victory over Arkansas State last week that required the Huskers to defend two end zone passes from the 11-yard line in the final 9 seconds at Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska in 2017 has endured significant turnover and tumult within segments of the roster and coaching staff. It replaced quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., a 44-game starter and the school's career leader in passing yardage and total offense, with Tanner Lee, who flashed brilliance in throwing for 238 yards and two scores in his debut.
The Huskers reconfigured the defense with the arrival of Bob Diaco, who replaced Riley’s longtime coordinator Mark Banker, fired in January. Growing pains were evident in Week 1 as Diaco’s defense allowed 497 yards and 32 first downs to a Sun Belt front-runner.
So is Nebraska on the cusp of a total rebuild with a first-year QB and a new defensive scheme, or is it churning ahead and buoyed by the movement forward -- progress, you might call it -- of the past 24 months?
The answers will determine if the Huskers can contend in the Big Ten this year.
“There’s no question we’re building,” offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh said after a preseason practice. “We are not changing the things that we’ve done.”
Nebraska, despite the apparent progress of last season that included a 35-32 win over the Ducks in Lincoln and a climb to No. 7 in the AP rankings, lost four of its final six games by a combined 109 points. In Riley’s first two seasons, the Huskers' 60.0 QBR ranked 50th nationally. Banker’s defense over two seasons allowed 5.71 yards per play, 73rd among FBS programs.
Riley has replaced four of his original assistants at Nebraska, building a flashier defensive staff led by Diaco, the former UConn coach of three seasons schooled in toughness as a linebacker at Iowa and accomplished Notre Dame coordinator from 2010 to 2013.
The staff appears to fit nicely behind Riley, who spent 14 years at Oregon State before this unanticipated venture to the Big Ten in December 2014.
“He’s a real football guy,” Diaco said recently of Riley. “He’s a nuts-and-bolts guy. He’s a tough guy, and he’s a kind man. And he has great character and class. I’m learning a lot from him on how to behave, how to have patience, how to listen.”
Lee, after one game at the helm, looks like a strong fit, too, providing Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf with the tools to operate the offense they created back in Corvallis.
The 22-year-old Lee, who began his career at Tulane, is 6-foot-4 with pocket presence, a smooth delivery and a strong arm. He said he saw in himself a bit of Sean Mannion, the third-round pick of the Rams in 2015 out of Oregon State.
He sings the same song as Riley, Cavanaugh, Langsdorf and the rest, emphasizing the Huskers have not had to hit reset in 2017.
“We’re picking up where we left off,” said Lee, who sat out last season. “The playbook is the same. The playcalling might be a little different, just because Tommy’s skill set was so diverse. He could run and throw. It’s going to change in that way. Other than that, it’s a testament to Coach Riley and Coach Langsdorf, being able to adapt to their personnel.”
Langsdorf, who returned to work alongside Riley in 2015 after coaching quarterbacks for one season with the New York Giants, said the Huskers are “definitely trending upward.”
“We have some guys who have been through it now and endured some pretty drastic change,” Langsdorf said, “but they are really starting to get it. There’s a learning progression that’s taken place.”
That Nebraska relies on a first-year quarterback this fall, in a season seemingly critical to the direction of the program, remains “a little bit scary,” Riley said in August.
“The most important to me is establishing the foundation,” the 64-year-old coach said. “I’m somewhat of a firm believer that what you establish through spring and summer in the football camp -- the things that you do and do well -- are going to be your identity.
“You’re not going to reinvent the wheel during the season.”
So what you saw Saturday, with a few tweaks and anticipated improvement, is what you’ve got at Nebraska over the next four months.
“Part of what we go through in life is the world of cycles,” Riley said.
He believes the Huskers are cycling forward.
Progress presents a variety of looks. It’s time to learn if Riley’s version of progress is painted against a backdrop of offseason change.