When he met with the media for his typical Monday morning press conference, head coach Mike Riley ran through the typical laundry list of topics: lots of guys are injured, there were individual performances he liked, there were parts of the offensive showing he liked, there was inconsistency still that needs to change, there was ineffectiveness in the red zone that needs to improve, there were hiccups defensively that caused major problems. Where the conversation strayed from the norm was when Riley was asked to talk about defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s comments following Saturday’s loss.
“There’s no reasonable reason, considering where the defensive program is at, to believe that they should be able to do everything that needs to be done in a game,” Diaco said about his players following a 31-24 overtime loss to Northwestern. “The things that happen in a game create an impossible circumstance to win against a great team. I’m not disappointed in any way with our players. The players are right where they should be in their development.”
When Riley was asked to decipher just what exactly that meant, he said he’d defer to Diaco because he could probably explain better. Riley did say, though, that he likes what his new coordinator and his staff have done so far given all the “moving parts” they’ve had to deal with.
“I think that this defensive staff, with the moving parts that we’ve had, I think they’ve done a nice job of having to adjust,” he said.
Riley talked about not having senior corner Chris Jones to start the season. He mentioned being without their top three safeties at one time. He mentioned missing linebacker Luke Gifford for what will become a third straight contest on Saturday. Not excuses, but parts of a whole that have contributed to what has been a shaky transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 defense under Diaco.
“I think they’re doing a nice job of growing these guys as a unit and individually,” Riley said. “I think they’re doing everything they can putting those pieces together and getting them ready to go.”
In their last four outings, the Blackshirts have yielded 37.3 points per game, 484.3 yards per and 6.5 yards per play. At the risk of extrapolating, those numbers would rank Nebraska No. 119 in the country in scoring defense and No. 123 in yards per game. In total, the defense has slipped to No. 79 in overall efficiency. Diaco claimed youth and inexperience in his system has caused there to be a prolonged adjustment period. Riley said they want to play at the highest level, obviously, but that he never told Diaco this needed to be a quick process.
“We have obviously tried to make a difference in what we’re doing defensively, we made a structural change,” Riley said. “The adaptation of players into the system has been a big job for our staff and we did it with our goal of being better. We are growing to that, not necessarily past it yet.
“All of us expect the best. I don’t ever remember saying ‘Bob let’s do this really fast,’ but we all want that. We all want that from the first game through every game. When you see where you are, everybody just works hard at trying to make it better. That’s where we are at every phase of our game.”
When asked if Diaco tried to use the same scheme blending techniques Riley used with his offensive system upon arrival or if he instituted an abrupt change, Riley maneuvered. He said there will be blending, similarities and difference in every scheme, but that they hired a coach with a system that has worked at a high level, and he trusts that coach.
“I’ve been proud of our coaches in the fact that I think they’ve kept the players engaged in growing and I’m proud that we’ve got some players that are tough-minded enough to keep going ans understanding this,” Riley said. “I think part of the reason the players are engaged is the coaches are still teaching. I think players see that.”
Riley also said he didn’t see Diaco’s statement as lowering the expectations placed on the Blackshirts. If there’s “no reasonable reason” they should be performing any differently than they are now, there might not be the expectation for them to be performing any better, right? Riley thinks not.
“That has never been any kind of a message that has surrounded any of our meetings or what we do as a team,” he said. “What happens with us productivity-wise may not reflect all the time the growth that we’re getting from individuals within that picture. … There are other parts of it that aren’t moving as fast as we probably need to or want to. We could look at it now and say that’s sort of natural with the change, but our job now is to just make it continue to grow.”
Riley pointed to nose tackle Mick Stoltenberg learning to play a new way, and showing continual improvement throughout the season. He pointed to linebackers Chris Weber and Dedrick Young II learning to play alongside each other. He pointed to outside linebacker Alex Davis getting better, cornerback Lamar Jackson getting better. He sees that as a sign of the players buying into the teaching and the coaches continuing to give that teaching.
“As we’ve made this change – staff, system, all that – I can appreciate all the work that’s gone in to making those parts work,” he said.
Other news and notes
>> Nebraska’s injury situation remains troublesome entering another week.
Riley announced Gifford’s hip injury has not improved enough to where he could play against Minnesota on Saturday and he will be held out. His backup, Tyrin Ferguson, is progressing and Riley said they will take a wait-and-see approach with him.
The same was said for cornerback Eric Lee Jr. (concussion) and running back Jaylin Bradley (ankle). Riley said an update on both would be provided on Thursday.
As for safeties Antonio Reed (knee) and Aaron Williams (neck), both dressed against Northwestern but did not play. Riley said they “should be further ahead physically to practice this week. Weber sustained what Riley called a “stinger” against the Wildcats, linebacker Ben Stille suffered a groin injury and holder Zack Darlington is still dealing with an illness, Riley said the staff is hopeful all three will be able to play against Minnesota.
>> Riley said that with all the outside noise surrounding his future and the future of the program, he tries to keep his focus inside the locker room.
“I don’t try to mediate between what may be going on outside of our room, I just kind of focus on what we need to do in our room,” he said. “Our message for these guys, just in general for their life, is the great thing you can do in a hard situation is not be controlled by that situation but really form your identity of a guy that can continue to work hard and make it better, be the difference maker in all this.
“We actually preach that from the very beginning, that’s the way life is and usually in seasons there’s some kind of rough spot, so you’ve got to be able to not let those dictate who you are. You probably have to fight it a little bit but that’s alright too, you have to learn to be that kind of person that will be reliable to your teammate.”
He added that his expectations of the team have not changed. He said he expects a strong week of practice and preparation as they prepare for Minnesota.
“This is a great time for all of us to not be controlled by our circumstances but be controlled by the moment of what we get to do,” he said. “I’m excited to get back to work with our team this afternoon to get ready to go and I expect with this group – as we’ve had – a great enthusiasm for the work as we get going.”
>> Since new athletic director Bill Moos arrived two weeks ago, Riley said they’ve spent “quite a bit” of time together.
“I have talked to Bill somewhat in depth – not a lot – a couple different times and the topics will be between us at this point,” he said. “I’ve had good talks with him and been around him quite a bit since he’s been here.”
He said that regardless of the speculation about his job, he’s continued to do what he needs to do, both on the field, in the locker room and on the recruiting trail.
“The one thing that we’re doing as a staff is we’re going forward with the things we are supposed to do: coach our team and recruit the next one,” he said. “We have put a ton of time into this 2018 class and we had a ton of really good visitors this last weekend. We’re going to continue to recruit those guys and then get them signed in December.
“We’re doing exactly what our job description describes: we’re gonna coach our team and recruit the next one and that’s what we do all the time.”
>> Riley has no intentions of taking over playcalling duties and he didn’t appear to have any major issues with the final four offensive plays from Nebraska during the overtime period.
“We would all like to have plays back when you don’t win,” he said. On three of their four overtime plays, the Huskers threw two incompletions and had one sack. Riley said it wasn’t the playcall, it was the execution that needed to change.
“That’s a reflection on me and our coaching,” he said, “but it’s not necessarily a reflection on that call.”
>> Nebraska had too many missed opportunites against Northwestern, as Riley put it, and that can’t happen against Minnesota.
If there’s a specific area of focus Riley wants to home in on, it’s the turnover margin.
“If we can focus on anything going forward here, it’s taking care of the ball,” he said. “We got some timely turnovers the other day, big ones in the game that could have, should have, would have won us the game. We just can’t return the favor like we did.”
He also wants better red zone efficiency. Nebraska took just two trips inside the 20 against Northwestern. One ended in a field goal, the other in an interception.
“The red zone efficiency of our team has to get better,” he said. “Touchdowns in the red zone, keeping the ball in the red zone, all of that is a big, big factor. When you turn the ball over in the red zone, it really, really hurts you.”
>> Near the end of his press conference, Riley dropped two nuggets.
The first, true freshman right tackle Brenden Jaimes has officially won the starting job on the right end, regardless of senior David Knevel’s health.
The second, the Huskers considered playing redshirt freshman JD Spielman at cornerback early in the season. Obviously, nothing materialized from those talks and Spielman has played largely at slot receiver this year.