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Free of distractions, Nebraska's senior class is positioned to lead change

Mike Riley hopes his Nebraska seniors will lead the team in the right direction this fall. AP Photo/Nati Harnik

LINCOLN, Neb. -- Outside coach Mike Riley’s office in the central area of Nebraska football headquarters at Memorial Stadium, a chunk of the wall is reserved for photos of the Cornhuskers’ senior class, in uniform and performing their craft.

Twenty frames hang in that space, honoring the seniors from Riley’s first Nebraska team last season. They occupy an important place in the Huskers’ story of growth -- and success, if that comes -- under Riley. The 2015 seniors helped their successors learn hard lessons in a 6-7 season marred by near misses and untimely errors.

When their photos come down this offseason, replaced by a class that numbers 33 as the Huskers progress through the opening week of spring, the outgoing seniors will not be soon forgotten.

But the act of empowering a new senior class will mark a symbolic leap for this program. It’s a leap, in fact, that started two months ago.

“We’re the veteran guys,” said Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr., 22-11 as starter since 2013. “We know what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to hold ourselves accountable. We’ve got to make sure we prepare the right way.”

That the Nebraska veteran players are actually focusing on Armstrong’s message and not a coaching transition or some other infuriating distraction represents a step toward solidifying the culture Riley seeks.

Too often in the past 13 years, the Huskers and their four head coaches over that time haven’t received a chance to hit their ceiling. Talk on the outside regularly swirled around self-inflicted controversy. And it seeped inside.

Riley said the Huskers are looking forward and not back. Questions and doubts “are just kind of disappearing into life,” the second-year coach said, “and that feels much more comfortable.”

This is an oversimplification, but I spent some time Monday in the offices and tension felt largely absent. Players came and went as Nebraska’s defensive coaches met over the lunch hour and other staffers entertained a coveted California quarterback prospect and his parents.

The air is light around Memorial Stadium, perhaps just a product of spring time.

The head coach last week rolled through the names of third-team offensive linemen like he’s worked with them for years.

A year ago at this time?

“It’s like a whole new world,” senior wideout Jordan Westerkamp said.

The Huskers enjoyed their best winter in the weight room since Westerkamp arrived in 2012, he said.

Nebraska made two staff changes last month, first bringing ex-Husker standout John Parrella back to Lincoln as defensive line coach in a move that just feels right. It also added former Rams' general manager Billy Devaney as executive director of player personnel, an intriguing hire that Riley expects to help allow him to maximize the talents on a roster of more than 120 players.

The only other surprise of note in early spring involved the shift of third-year sophomore Zack Darlington from quarterback to slot receiver.

The Huskers are dealing with a few injuries, notably to potential top-unit defenders Aaron Williams in the secondary and linebacker Luke Gifford. Receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El continues to rehab from November knee surgery.

Paul Thurston, a candidate to start on the interior of the O-line, must miss several practices because of a class conflict. Nick Gates moved from right tackle to left. Greg McMullen is toggling between defensive tackle and end.

These are the types of storylines that merit spring attention in a healthy program.

What does it mean? Maybe nothing, if Nebraska fails to kick its bad habits in the fall. Which is where the senior class gets heavily involved. They’re tasked to helped the Huskers reduce penalties and turnovers in 2016 and stay focused on their coaches’ message.

“Deep down, it is a character thing,” senior receiver Brandon Reilly said. “It’s the little details. I mean, you saw how many games we lost at the end [last year] that were just little details here and there.”

Every group on the field includes a senior positioned to lead -- Nate Gerry in the secondary, Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey at linebacker, McMullen and Ross Dzuris on the defensive line, Thurston and Dylan Utter up front on offense, Armstrong, I-back Terrell Newby, Westerkamp, Reilly and fellow receiver Alonzo Moore.

At the outset of practice, Riley described the offseason so far as “uneventful.”

“A good thing,” he said.

Take a breath. The air is clear in Lincoln. Nebraska’s next senior class gets a chance to write its own story.