LINCOLN, Neb. – First-year Nebraska coach Mike Riley looks forward to connecting faces to the names of many of his players as spring practice opens Saturday.
Riley has had a whirlwind of experiences in three months on the job. The first 60 days were largely devoted to recruiting. In weeks since signing day, he’s fulfilled obligations with Nebraska’s fan base, donor community and the media. He completed his staff recently with the hiring of Brian Stewart as secondary coach.
When time permitted, Riley spent time on evaluations and relationship-building with his 121-player roster. Most of his assistant coaches, in fact, have spent more time with the Huskers than Riley.
“The one that’s behind on all that is me,” Riley said. “I don’t like this feeling.”
He’s planning to focus almost exclusively on personnel and teaching during the upcoming 15 practices that conclude April 11 with the Red-White game -- expected, as usual, to draw a huge crowd to Memorial Stadium.
The coach and several Huskers met Wednesday with the media to discuss expectations and plans for the spring.
News and notes:
• Riley said the Huskers who filled starting roles last season, including quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., will enter spring practice with the edge to win jobs.
“I think it’s important for every player to have an opportunity to win a job,” Riley said. “[But] those guys have earned spots in this program. We owe it to every player to evaluate in closely as we go.”
Armstrong started all 13 games for the Huskers in 2014, completing 53.3 percent of his passes (184 of 345) for 2,695 yards with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also rushed for 705 yards and six touchdowns.
Armstrong offers a different style of quarterback for Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, who spent nine seasons together at Oregon State before Langsdorf coached quarterbacks for the New York Giants in 2014.
Armstrong said his new coaches informed him soon after their arrival that he’s not a running back. The rising junior said he expected to spend more time in the pocket this spring than in the past and will operate out of the shotgun and under center.
“Footwork is going to be the key to my success,” Armstrong said.
• Offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh has made a positive impression on senior linemen Givens Price and Alex Lewis. Price said Cavanaugh asked the linemen to list for him their preferred positions. Price, who has played guard and tackle at Nebraska, figures to work this spring at right tackle.
“It’s exciting to get a fresh start,” Price said, “but it’s also an opportunity to get better.”
Of Cavanaugh, Lewis said: “He’s going to coach you hard and love you harder.”
• Riley said he plans to try a style of practice new to him through the first half of drills. The Huskers have been divided into two teams – both with a mix of experience – and will rotate in drills. The idea, he said, is to maximize repetitions and allow the new coaches to better evaluate.
“I did not want a team period where 22 guys were playing and 100 guys were watching,” Riley said. “I just don’t like standing around. We’re going to give guys opportunities.”
Depth at linebacker and center presented a problem in dividing personnel, Riley said.
The coach plans to mix scrimmaging into workouts this spring about every third practice, though some of the live work might last for as few as 10 minutes.
• Several defensive players said they were excited in anticipation of practicing under coordinator Mark Banker.
“It’s a lot simpler,” junior safety Nate Gerry said. “Coach Banker wants us to emphasize flying around. Last year, we had a lot of people thinking. Banker’s just letting us loose. That’s one thing, as a defense, that’s going to help us out.”
Gerry said he welcomed the expected fierce competition for spots as the new coaches assess the roster.
“Everybody sees it as all doors are open,” he said.
Linebacker David Santos, according to media reports, remains out after undergoing knee surgery after Nebraska’s National University Holiday Bowl loss to USC. Offensive tackle Zach Sterup and center Ryne Reeves are not ready to practice.
Riley described the impending practices as “the dawn of a new day.”
“We’ve got a lot to do,” he said. “More to do than normal.”