Lincoln Riley’s demeanor heading into his first spring as an offensive coordinator could best be described as cautiously optimistic.
Riley, the youngest offense coordinator in the FBS at 26, will spend the spring trying to implement Texas Tech’s high-octane offensive system at East Carolina, a place that, under former head coach Skip Holtz, was best known for its potent running attack.
Riley, who was Tech’s wide receivers coach the past three seasons, has no allusions the next six months heading into the Pirates season opener will be easy. East Carolina lost four offensive starters, including quarterback Patrick Pinkney. Riley doesn’t have a reliable running back and he’ll have only two scholarship quarterbacks this spring.
But Riley said the main obstacle wouldn’t be finding the right players for the system, but rather getting players to believe that what he’s trying to teach can work.
“The biggest thing here is going to be changing the mentality,” Riley said. “They’ve been solid on offense, they’ve done some good things, but to do what we want to do, similar to Texas Tech, the mentality has got to change.
“We’ve got to get to the point where the word punt makes them sick to the stomach.”
In the month Riley has been on campus, he’s already laid down expectations to players. He’s given players a skeleton of what the offense will look like and encouraged them to watch film of Texas Tech on their own. While Riley said East Carolina wouldn’t be exactly like Texas Tech, a lot of concepts will be the same. He also said the offense is simple enough for players to pick it up during the five weeks of spring practice.
“By the end of spring we should have the whole offense in,” Riley said. “I’m not going to say that there’s not going to be a few special plays, a few trick plays, or something special we might do while we’re gameplanning for North Carolina or Navy or something like that, but they’re going to have 99 percent of the offense in once spring’s over.”
Riley’s not going to put everything in on the first day. He’ll break it down into three or four day segments, allow players to get used to what they’ve learned and then slowly introduce more twists.
One thing that has helped Riley win over his offensive players is promising that each will get a fair look in the system. Riley and his offensive coaches have watched some film to assess the talent they have remaining, but have limited their judgment of players. Just because a player didn’t fit into Holtz’s system doesn’t mean he couldn’t be perfect for what Riley is trying to execute.
“I’ve made myself and encouraged all the offensive coaches to form their own opinions about these guys,” Riley said. “We don’t want any preconceived notions. We gave all these guys a clean slate when we walked in. It’s a fresh start and for some of these guys they probably needed a fresh start.”
Riley is big on providing opportunities the way East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill provided him one. Riley ran the Red Raiders’ offense in the Alamo Bowl and led them to a 41-31 win over Michigan State. The audition was enough for McNeill to give the young offensive mastermind his own show.
Now Riley’s ready to make the most of his moment.
“I can’t even put into words how excited I am,” Riley said. “I know I’ve worked hard to get to this point, but I’m not dumb. A lot of things have gone right for me to get to this point in my career. I’m so excited. I’m very, very fortunate and very humbled by it.
“To be able to turn this thing lose and be able to run it the way we want to run it is a great opportunity.”