Friday, January 09, 2015

Separating Fantasy From Reality With Mike Riley's New Nebraska Staff

It became blatantly obvious to me that a lot of Husker fans took a lot more out of the announcement of Mike Riley's Nebraska football staff than I did. I take most of it as being hopeful about the future, because there certainly are far more concerns about this staff than fans are acknowledging.

I also note that it's probably an overreaction to the "meh" reaction the Riley hire has made from national pundits. Grantland's Matt Hinton earlier this week called Riley the "lowest ceiling hire that the Cornhuskers could have reasonably made." That's led to even more snipes at Bo Pelini from people who previously wanted to "move on" and "leave it in 2014."  It's rather akin to bashing the ex-flame, if only to make your new romantic interest that much better looking in comparison.

Make no bones about it, Riley's new staff is much more experienced overall than Pelini's last staff. But for all the talk of hiring the "best people" out there, Riley went with buddy hires almost across the board: six of the eight announced assistants coached with Riley at Oregon State.  Only two are new to Mike Riley: defensive line coach Hank Hughes and secondary coach Charleton Warren.  Hughes went to college with defensive coordinator Mark Banker, making Hughes really another "buddy" hire, leaving only Warren as a true newcomer.  And I'm still not convinced that Riley made the decision to retain Warren, as Warren was the only assistant coach that Shawn Eichorst allowed to be on the road recruiting during NU's brief coaching search. (An awfully convenient coincidence, if it were.)

The size of the support staff raised a lot of eyebrows, as it's significantly bigger than previously. Some see that as proof of Eichorst's support of the program, but is that the same freedom that Pelini was given? We all know Pelini's private rant about not being supported. We don't know what Pelini exactly meant by that, but just because Riley is hiring a huge staff doesn't mean that Pelini was allowed to do the same.

One concern I have is how Riley and new offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf will mesh their "pro-style" background with Nebraska's "spread" personnel. While Langsdorf and Riley are quick to point out that they'll adapt things to their personnel, I'm also reminded that Bill Callahan also talked about how "flexible" his system could be.  This is one of those things I'll be watching very intently this spring and fall to see how this actually works out.  I suspect this is going to be one of those trial-and-error things; I have no doubt that Riley will be better than Callahan in that respect...but that bar is set awfully, awfully low.

And let's be honest, Riley's offense wasn't very good in recent years at Oregon State.  At the same time Eichorst was making the decision to fire Pelini, Riley was telling folks in Oregon that his offense had to change.  But Riley isn't really changing his staff...he's just changing his personnel by adopting a more potent Nebraska roster.  Langsdorf fills a definite void at Nebraska in quarterback coaching, but overall, I do think skepticism about where this offense is headed is warranted.

This isn't to condemn Riley's staff as a failure; they haven't lost a single game yet.  We don't know how this is going to play out, and that's the fascinating thing we're going to watch over the next eight months. My point is simply that just because you want really, really hard for this to succeed, we don't really know if it will or not.

That's the reality of Nebraska football in 2015.

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